THE BRITISH COMMUNIST PARTY IN THE 1980s:
REVISIONISM, RESISTANCE AND RE-ESTABLISHMENT
The background to the falling apart of the CPGB was deeply rooted in controversies about which direction the Party should go; should it put all its energies into activity inside the labour movement, or should it invest heavily in the diverse, sometimes newer, social movements, like the women’s’, green, students’ or peace movements? Or should it seek some accommodation amongst all these activities; moreover where did the youth movement fit in? And how should the “Morning Star’ be orientated in all this?
Some mass Communist Parties in Europe, the Italians and the Spanish in particular, were very much to the fore in the 1970s in questioning their role in the world and the nature of the post-war settlement. Some seemed plausibly on the point of taking, or sharing, power and it showed in their over-anxiousness to appeal to the centre-ground. Much of Gramsci’s writing was coded and couched in the language of culture, since he had to be cautious while writing illicitly in prison. Consequently, Gramsci was wide open to interpretation despite the fact that he came from a decidedly revolutionary position. In Italy, the mighty Communist Party was now reaching a key point in its development. It would either become a natural party of government, or it would splinter. Many Italian CP leaders would reach for Gramsci to justify what might otherwise have been considered suspect positions to adopt. Gramsci was being similarly used to justify an equally revisionist position in Italy as it was in Britain. The `Young Turks’ in the CPGB adopted the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, as their new Messiah, a prophet of modernism, despite the fact that he had written most of his politically significant writing in prison in Fascist Italy more than forty years before. In truth, Gramsci offers many interesting insights, especially in understanding the tension between coercion and consent in a modern capitalist state and how these tools are used through the creation of a notional common sense in society that may defy reality.
The notion that culture was at the heart of ideology was rooted in this reading of Gramsci and its adherents, who called themselves Revolutionary Democrats and operated as a faction, though they denied they existed they nonetheless held secret meetings, or private social events, designed to progress their `project’ (a word later adopted from them by the Blairites). The term Revolutionary Democrat consciously aped the `young Marx’ and his ideological work before he had undertaken the long task of writing `Capital’.
The practical effect of their thinking was to undermine the Party focus on industrial work; sometimes, at least, it seemed as if this was the end game. The argument was that interpretations of historical materialism that viewed the mechanism of extraction of surplus value as critical to the development of history (and, by extension, future) were flawed. That the state and politics and culture were fields of conflict, too; indeed, that in advanced liberal democracies revolutionary progress could best be obtained by interventions in these spheres, that this would enable revolutionaries to connect with the masses in a more consistent way; further that this was especially so with young people, who were increasingly rejecting class consciousness in favour of cultural identity. Of course, as with any intellectual analysis, there is much in this. But the internal faction conflict seemed to present these questions in a `baby and bathwater’ way. To be Marxist about it, the dialectical relationship of culture and class were not explored creatively but confrontationally. It had to be one or the other for the revisionists.
The term `Euro-Communism’ popularly developed as a kind of shorthand for all this and there were those in the CPGB who enthusiastically endorsed this label. Euro-Communists were dismissive of the value of democratic centralism, queried the notion and past practice of the Party in industrial work and in particular its concentration on the big battalions of the trade union movement. They denigrated wages militancy and saw the role of supposedly new forces such as the peace movement, women’s liberation and ecological and environmental movements as equal or superior to the traditional labour movement. Precisely what kind of struggle was at the forefront, or needed to be, to advance to socialism was seen as a matter of debate. The most recent draft of the CPGB’s programme, the British Road to Socialism (BRS) had been in 1968. Much had changed since that time that went beyond the mere passage of years. But there was an assertive demand from the Euro-Communist camp for a major over-haul of the BRS.
Those who doubted the position of the Euro-Communists saw the struggle against trans-national corporations, or the anti-monopoly alliance, as crucial. If alliances were to be constructed, they should emanate from that struggle. The Euro-Communists saw the struggle for democracy as synonymous with the struggle for socialism and believed that in an advanced bourgeois democracy, alliances with forces which could identify with the defence and extension of democracy was the key. Mere trade union struggle would not achieve this, it was argued. Increasingly, such a view tended to think of socialism as being a very distant objective. The Euro-Communists adopted a position of severe criticism of the socialist countries, especially the USSR. Although most `centrists’ and some `traditionalists’ in the Party were also critical, albeit generally in a more restrained way. These contrasting views, sometimes in bizarre and multi-layered shades, were held at all levels and in all Districts of the Party. But the Euro-Communists were more and more emerging as being in control not, only of the YCL, but also of sections of the Party itself. It was now clearer than ever that the Euro-Communist project had a similar plan in store for the Communist Party as it had applied to the YCL.
The grouping of career politicians in the Party (there were as many a fifty full-timers, one way or another) mainly coalesced for the moment around a compromise position, which united the more traditional wings of the membership with the leadership. In the run up to the 35th Congress in 1977, which was mainly to be concerned with reviewing the BRS, an assault on the class character of the programme was launched, with the result that the finally approved document was ambiguous and contradictory. The anti-monopoly alliance that was sought could be seen either to be based on the working class and its institutions, especially the trade unions, with other social movements following on from this, or on a range of social movements with the trade unions just one body amongst a plethora. Even so, the Euro-Communists were forced to accept what they saw as fudge, much against their will; although the redraft arguably resulted in facing both ways on the key questions of difference. Before this occurred, some dogmatically inclined groups, focused around the Surrey District, sensing that a major revision was under way which might provide them with sufficient sympathy to form a new party, decided to break away to form the New Communist Party.
The drift of the Euro-Communist approach was to present the need for a unity of single issues which had no formal basis in class society, with the labour movement being seen as just another ‘single issue’ and not the leading force. Whilst the media and outside political forces always characterised the varying forces which began to range up against each other in the Party and YCL as ‘ hard-line’ and ‘ soft-line’, or even ‘Stalinist and ‘Euro-Communist’, the truth was infinitely more subtle and even confused. `Blind obedience to Moscow’, as it was characterised by outsiders, was by no means the real basis of the splits in the Party. It is clear in retrospect that some were content to revise their Marxist views to such an extent that all Marxism would be eliminated from their beliefs. The designation `revisionist’ would seem at the very least appropriate, even if some individuals allowed their distaste for the traditions of the Party to grow so violent that they became objectively anti-communist. Others were so determined not to recognise the challenges that lay ahead that they retreated to dogmatic ideas. Most fell somewhere in between the two camps, especially the many that were active in labour movements and did not accept that modernising Marxist analysis mean denuding it of its class content.
John Gollan had retired as General Secretary in 1974, due to ill-health and imminent retirement, soon in fact to suffer an early death. He was replaced by the National Organiser, Gordon McLennan. Part of his former job had been to oversee the work of the YCL and it was increasingly evident in the 1970s that he was using the YCL as a sort of test tube for the Party itself. New ideas were tried out on the League; key activists in the League were imported into the Party after having acquired revisionist ideas in the YCL leadership. In retrospect, it is clear that experiments on the YCL led directly to its early demise, in or around 1982, long before the implosion of the Party itself and its delayed voluntary dissolution in 1992. The conclusions were there for all to see but little of this informed the subsequent process.
Being more self-evidently vital to the Party, the area that concerned many however was how the Party leadership was handling the increasing problems of the Morning Star. For example, the Party’s EC in May 1976 accepted a plan to massively increase Party work to get real circulation growth of the paper but nothing much happened. Star circulation was supposedly the Number One Priority, but sections even of the leadership were arguing that the content of the paper, which was strongly geared to the labour movement, was at fault. At the 35th Congress in 1977, a revisionist amendment to thoroughly review the content, style, presentation and management of the paper was carried by 193 votes to 137. A sub-committee of the EC concentrated on content, not on organisation, completely ignoring the weakness of the circulation campaign. An aim to put on an extra 3,000 copies a day and to raise extra copies sold at the weekend from 5,000 to 15,000 was utterly undermined by the revisionists producing their own local journals. Star circulation actually dropped, despite the rising militancy against the Social Contract and leftward swing in the trade unions, principally due to the restructuring of industry that was already underway but would assume titanic proportions in the following decade.
Put simply, the historic circulation base of the paper in large factories, or organised council estates – usually sold en masse by activists – was being eroded by social and economic changes, not the least the massive recessions of the early 1980s, but losses in sales were not being replaced by new readership. Party membership was also plummeting, but the strongest lead given by the predominantly full-time leadership was a neat line in exhortation; essentially it was the fault of the membership that decline had set in and the simple answer was to work harder! In the two years up to July 1977 membership had dropped from 28,519 to 25,293 and worse was to come.
From their origins in the YCL and the Party students’ organisations, the revisionist group operated as a quite secret faction. The name and the existence of a group were entirely unknown to the majority of members, although many were aware of the trend. This organised faction was paralleled by another, the Straight Left group, a dogmatic faction that also had its origins in the students’ wing of the Party. What set them apart was that McLennan now began to rely on his old allies from the YCL, as they assumed increasingly important roles within the Party; whilst the dogmatic trend – itself actually much more multi-layered and often including individuals with a nuanced grasp of theoretical questions than was the case with the revisionist trend – served as a useful `Aunt Sally’. Even so, the revisionist attempted assault on democratic centralism in 1979 as the essential concept governing Party life did not immediately unify the old guard leadership to the revisionist camp. But, over the next two years, McLennan began to toy with letting the young guard off the leash.
For some years the simmering differences had been largely buttoned up but now the Party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, was allowed increasing licence to challenge the longstanding bias in the Party towards political alliances with the labour movement. The role of the Industrial Department of the Party, which had been central to encouraging the militant leadership of the trade union movement of the 1960s and 70s, was undermined and a determination to control the Morning Star from the Party’s headquarters became evident.
These underlying tensions between `Euro Communist’ and `traditionalist’ factions inside the Party massively grew after Pete Carter, National Organiser of the YCL in the mid-60s, was elevated to take the extremely significant position of the CPGB’s National Industrial Organiser. Despite many reservations at Carter’s appointment, there was no hint of the calamities to come. Jim Saunders, in advance of Carter taking up this role, interviewed him in the Morning Star. [Morning Star 1.8.83] Aside from a minor hint of controversy by talking of the “narrow reliance by trades unionists on their existing practices”, there was initially little to frighten the horses. But it was an underlying sign of a serious political difference that had emerged on the Party’s Political Committee.
Martin Jacques, editor of the Party’s theoretical journal `Marxism Today, who often unrestrainedly made unsympathetic noises about unions had been fast-tracked some years before into a leadership role straight from university, a very unusual approach for the CPGB. He had long been part of the circle of revisionist-minded young people that McLennan seemed fascinated with. Mick Costello, the Industrial Organiser before Carter, had opposed Jacques’ critical line on unions on the PC but was increasingly over-ruled by the majority. In September 1982, Marxism Today had printed what was effectively an attack on the shop stewards’ movement by Professor Tony Lane. Mick Costello, the CP Industrial Organiser had attacked Lane in the pages of the Star. There followed sharp exchanges between the Party and the paper. Eventually, Costello jumped ship to work as the Morning Star’s Industrial Correspondent and then his membership of the Party was refused at the end of the year. Carter’s elevation was part of this process.
Overall, Jacques’ behaviour gave the impression that he sought to behave rather as the Young Marx did, as editor of the “Rheinische Zeitung”. Jacques was a brilliant iconoclast, ever eager to discover something new. Trouble was that Marx was about trying to topple the Prussian autocracy, whilst Jacques was seemingly more interested in toppling Communism! When Marx left the editorship after the 1843 censorship of his journal, the state paid him the compliment of lifting the ban on publication. When Martin Jacques left the editorship of “Marxism Today”, it was on the way to liquidation and sale to the New Statesman; Marx was instinctively self-critical, Jacques was merely critical.
A major controversy now erupted over the control of the Morning Star and this polarised opinion in the Party into those who felt absolutely committed to those who resisted the campaign by the Euro-Communist leadership of the Party to silence the vigorous way the paper acted as a focus for trade union militancy. An argument over the Star’s content, given as a reason for its circulation problems, surfaced. But this was not the key issue. Even a special sub-committee set up by the Communist Party’s Executive in 1978 and much influenced by revisionists elements, had said that “the paper will not sell itself”. Since then, the revisionists had struck hard at the 1979 National Congress and, by the time of the 1981 Congress, they were blaming the paper in amendment 31A: “the primary responsibility for keeping readers must lie with the paper itself”. This was supported by the EC, with qualifications that were soon to be forgotten.
In June 1983, the Morning Star’s governing body the Management Committee issued a statement of annoyance at interference from King Street, the Party’s head office, referring to the Party as “an outside body”. The 38th Congress of the Party in late 1983 had given the leadership a mandate to seek control over the paper, despite the formal legality that it was – and is – actually owned and controlled by a readers’ co-operative, the Peoples’ Press Printing Society (PPPS). Circulation of the paper was always small, compared to the established press. Around 20,000 copies were being sold daily in the UK, with around 15,000 additionally being sold abroad. [34th Annual Report PPPS] Pressure from the Euro-Communists to change the content and style of the paper was strong. A sub-committee of the EC of the Party reviewed this aspect and much improvement was evidenced. It was clear, however, that the politics of the paper’s appeal were a target for the revisionists, should it continue to focus on the labour movement, especially the trade unions, or should it cast its net wider? Should it focus on socialist solutions or should it dampen such a profile?
A challenge to the role and character of the Morning Star had been expected from the Euro-Communists in 1979 at the PPPS AGM, at a time when the central bureaucracy had not forged an alliance with them. Normally, at the AGMs in the late 1970s, only around 80 in total attended the aggregate total of the various sub-sectional meetings held around the country. A minor mobilisation of Party members was made but the expected challenge was still born. In Birmingham, a special sectional meeting was held for the first time to encourage reliable members to attend the AGM, which was traditionally held in various locations to assist attendance. Only 28 attended the Birmingham meeting but few would have normally travelled to London for the AGM. The only thing of note that came out of this AGM is that it endorsed the concept of readers’ and supporters’ groups for the first time. [GS contemporary notes 10.6.79] Over the next few years, a concerted effort to broaden the paper’s base was made, with two leading Labour Party members being elected to the Management Committee in 1982.
By the time of the 1983 AGM, it was clear that serious financial problems threatened the future of the paper; UK sales were down to around 15,000 with foreign sales still at the same level. Regular meetings of the Party EC and the Management Committee began to heighten the evident differences about the way forward for the paper, especially as the political character of the EC had shifted towards the revisionist perspective. The run up to the AGM that year saw a concerted effort to shift control of the paper towards the increasingly Euro-Communist leadership. The EC determined to shift the membership of the Management Committee its way and an unprecedented list of six replacement names was circulated. (By long-standing practice, under the rules of the PPPS, six out of the total of fourteen members of the committee came up for election each year, by rota thus guaranteeing continuity amongst some of its members.)
The Management Committee hit back, indicating that a new survival plan based on developing commercial work for its presses was underway and that the best team to lead that forward was the existing one. It is notable that the six on the list favoured by the Management Committee were dominated by trades unionists. The former convenor of the British Leyland Longbridge plant, Derek Robinson, an AGS of the AUEW, the secretary of the SOGAT Fleet Street branch and the DGS of the Tobacco Workers Union were amongst them. [Morning Star 1.6.83] The EC’s recommended list put forward full time Party apparatchiks, who job was to bring the Management Committee into line, whatever that took. But the offensive failed completely.
Such a challenge to the authority of the leadership was unacceptable to it and the EC now determined to address the core problem by removing Tony Chater and David Whitfield, the editor and deputy editor, in the most heavy-handed way possible. These two were not placed on the EC’s recommended list at the 38th Congress in 1983 and, failing to get elected, were now out of the leadership. The issue now became one of enforcing Party decisions on individual Communists who were involved in the PPPS. On February 3rd 1984, the Political Committee of the Party, the leading sub-committee of the Executive Committee, met the seven Party members who were on the PPPS Management Committee. They took the view that the Party position was an unacceptable interference in a broad organisation. A comparable position at the time would have been if the CPGB EC instructed members in a co-operative society, or a trade union, to adopt a position that they found untenable, say to seek the sacking of a key functionary because the Party wanted someone else. Party members who were union activists had always to match their loyalty to union and Party in a sensitive way. Admittedly, the relationship between the editor and the Party was a different kettle of fish but the presence of Labour Party members on the Management Committee had qualitatively made this change whether the Party realised this or not.
Most certainly, such a `transmission belt’ mentality had not been the approach adopted by the CPGB vis-à-vis trade unions and the co-operative movement. The Morning Star was – indeed is – a trade union supporting co-operative. In March 1984, the CPGB EC issued a lengthy statement on the PPPS, complaining that the paper was refusing to implement its decision to change the editors and that the “special relationship” that existed between the paper and the Party exempted Communists from normal considerations regarding broad organisations. Remarkably, it complained that it had not been consulted on the purchasing of a new £650,000 printing machine, which many thought was primarily a managerial/financial matter for the PPPS. The reasons behind all this were made clear nearer the end of this statement; a whole page of close printed text filled one page. A list of complaints about the refusal or delay in publishing rebuttals from the EC of comments critical of Marxism Today, or the politics associated with it, was given. At the heart of the dispute over whether the Management Committee had altered the relationship between the paper and the Party was attitudes to Euro-Communism. [Morning Star 14.3.84]
The EC again produced its list of candidates for the Management Committee, mainly politically `reliable’ people. An “election address” was produced on their behalf, indicating their desire to “relieve Tony Chater and David Whitfield of their present or similar responsibilities”, since they were no longer EC members and this fact minimised the nature of the special relationship! [Original undated document] The Management Committee again backed candidates with labour movement credentials, including a union General Secretary and a Labour MP. A lengthy resolution was also tabled by the EC and others seeking endorsement of the two sackings but was ruled out of order. No power existed in the constitution to order the Management Committee to act in a particular way on appointments. To slightly complicate things, the Straight Left group – essentially the `hard-liners’ who had not left with Sid French to form the New Communist Party – had unsuccessfully put forward its own candidates in 1983 and did so again in 1984. [Morning Star 30.5.84] Its three candidates demanded “acknowledgement of the authority of the EC”, since the group had in fact followed McLennan in the walkout from the collapsed London District Congress. Many later pondered that the reasoning was that once they took control of the machine they would expect such discipline from those in control of the paper. [Paper by Tom Durkin “A motley alliance against the Communist Campaign Group c 1987]
At the AGM in June, votes cast for the established Management Committee members ranged from around 1,400 to 1,500 out of 3,000 shareholders, despite the fact that the Glasgow meeting was aborted due to rowdiness from EC supporters. A demand for a special AGM of the PPPS was launched by the CPGB EC, which called special meetings to this effect, mobilising around 1,200 people to call for the removal of Management Committee members. But the Management Committee rightly pointed to constitutional weaknesses in this demand and declared the meetings unconstitutional. [Morning Star 2.11.84]
The crisis in British Communism now became really acute. It began with the sudden intervention by the Party leadership in the London District Congress. First it tried to impose a decision that the Congress must not elect a new District Committee, then it tried to split the Congress when Gordon McLennan, the General Secretary, walked out, calling on the 250 delegates to follow him. Only a very few did so, with the result that those who remained were defined by the leadership as having constituted a faction by virtue of remaining and continuing the Congress. Subsequently, 22 members were suspended from membership and three members of the District’s full-time staff were dismissed at a moment’s notice. The supposed justification for all this was that irregularities had occurred in the election of delegates from six branches, although this was later reduced to two, in one London borough out of 18.
These allegations were of a low level nature, a matter that could quite easily have been rectified if valid. The truth is that the whole exercise was a sham, a device to wage internal war on the non-Euro-Communist trend that still dominated the membership of the Party by the leadership, which itself was operating as a faction. The ludicrous slur was made that the 22 suspended members were responsible for ultra-leftist material that had been circulated at the Party Congress in November 1983. The seeds of the extraordinary events at the District Congress lay in the untimely death of the District Secretary, Bill Dunn, prior to the Congress. The EC had imposed a temporary replacement from Central Office, Ian McKay, on the basis that there were many problems that needed addressing, by which it meant the popular distrust of the direction the Party was taking amongst the bulk of the London membership. McKay then prepared a `hit list’ of people to be excluded from membership of the DC to be elected at Congress.
A similar style intervention then took place in the North West District of the CPGB after its District Congress. Veteran Party members Andre Rothstein and Robin Page Arnot, in an analytical piece for the CPUSA journal, Political Affairs, wrote that: “It would be comic, were it not tragic, to reveal that the Executive has more than once taken to task the leadership of the Soviet, Polish and Czechoslovak Parties for their alleged use of administrative measures…” Moreover, a two year campaign against the Morning Star had been waged by the CPGB EC, without it once citing political differences as being at the heart of a demand that the Editor and Deputy Editor resign. The charges against them had amounted to “no more than accusations of uncomradely behaviour – charges which … could have been met and resolved…” This organisational emphasis on democratic centralism was the most cynical abuse of privilege imaginable, since the real strategic aim of the EC leadership was to denude the Party of its revolutionary content, including the concept of democratic centralism! [Andrew Rothstein and Robin Page Arnot “The British Communist Party and Euro-Communism”, Political Affairs, CPUSA, October 1985]
At a members’ only meeting in Manchester in March 1984, called to consider the effect of the crisis on the Party itself, Gordon McLennan was asked about the closeness of the 60:40 majority recorded at the 1983 Congress. The question was as to whether that truly reflected the split of opinion in the membership as a whole, for those of us against the revisionist trend strongly suspected that it was not. His response was that if a majority of 51% was good enough for the recent election of the NUM General Secretary, a 60:40 split was good enough for the Party leadership. Such a view was extraordinarily reckless and did not compare like for like. The election of one individual to a post was hardly the same as the question of the life and death existence of an entire movement. [“Stop the Rot – the crisis within the Communist Party” Jim Arnison p5 (1985)]
In January 1985, the CPGB EC expelled both Chater and Whitfield, along with four of 22 suspended members. Tom Durkin and Ivan Beavis for moving motions at the London District Congress and Mike Hicks, for allowing Rule 3(d) to be applied as the chair of the congress, and Roger Trask, the District Organiser, for being “specially responsible” for defying the EC. Six of the 22 would remain suspended, 12 were restored to membership but debarred from holding office (this included two EC members thus thrown off the committee). Three full time workers remained sacked, including two restored to membership. [GS contemporary notes 13.1.85]
Elections for delegates to the Party Congress in 1985 were held in April amidst intense hostility. All sorts of damaging rumours were thrown about and it often seemed that EC supporters were anxious to select the most controversial characters they could find. The opposition to this new wave of antagonism to those who refused to renounce basic Marxists views was divided, not perhaps uniformly but sufficiently so as to undermine the true strength of opposition to the fundamental revisionism now underway. Usually Straight Left factionalists and supporters of a Marxist interpretation of the BRS found themselves in opposition to each other and groupings of branches to put together sufficient numbers to elect a delegate were created by the revisionist bureaucracy in such a way as to take greatest advantage of this. The fact that the leadership acted as a faction gave it enormous benefit when the final allocation of delegates became clear, the revisionist alliance at EC level had control of the Congress and it intended to use that control ruthlessly.
The yearly battle over the PPPS recommenced in 1985 at the 40th AGM. The CPGB EC again produced an election leaflet, headed “Reclaim the Star”, whilst another less widely circulated leaflet dug about looking for dirt in connection with the survival plan. The EC even organised coaches to attempt to flood the AGM and now fielded several trade union loyalists, as well as a couple of dedicated revisionists. Amongst those that the Management Committee fielded were a union DGS and two former union Presidents – one of whom was soon to become a GS. As the regional AGMs began, Moss Evans, General Secretary of the T&G, sent the good wishes of the GEC for the MC survival plans. [Morning Star 7.6.85] In contrast, as the Party weakened in the face of this grinding controversy, Trotskyite groupings began to feed off the conflict. A faction called “Proletarian” surfaced and others would follow, one eventually having the cheek even to the present to claim the name “CPGB” after that body eventually formally wound itself up.
Arthur Scargill had already publicly declared his support but also unexpectedly turned up at the Manchester section of the AGM. Fresh from having led the titanic struggle of the miners, his electrifying and powerful speech attracted enormous confidence in the Management Committee. More controversially, if accurately, he accused the CPGB leadership of conducting “a campaign of vilification” against himself and NUM General Secretary, Peter Heathfield. They held not one meeting with him, except when he asked for one to ask for answers about the role of Pete Carter, the CPGB Industrial Organiser on the mining dispute. Carter had written a pamphlet, still in draft form, that was “severely critical of the leadership of the struggle”. In contrast, the editor of the Star had met the NUM leader six times and had frequently front paged the miners’ struggle during the course of the dispute. The CPGB Chair, George Bolton, himself an NUM official, had taken part in discussion in Marxism Today in which he had been sharply critical of the union. Scargill pointed to the irony that Mick McGahey, legendary Communist and Vice-President of the NUM, had been “part and parcel of every single decision taken by the NUM”. He also quoted McGahey, who had spoken at the CPGB Congress: “the basic weakness of the miners’ strike … (was) that the Communist Party was not strong enough in industry, was not organised in factory branches. [Morning Star 11.6.85] He was right, of course, but it did not truly identify the inertia of the CPGB leadership, which failed to mobilise the Party’s industrial comrades on a collective, national basis. Only after massive pressure was a national conference of such Party comrades eventually called, being held in Birmingham at Digbeth Civic Hall, as late as Sunday 8th June 1984, and months after the start of the dispute. (McGahey, as a staunch and life-long Communist, was wedded to the concept of Part unity through iron discipline. Whilst supporting the EC leadership during the course of its suicidal path in the 1980s, he would join the Communist Party of Scotland on the subsequent dissolution of the CPGB.)
The five MC candidates polled around 3,000 each, with the EC’s candidates getting around 1,900. A motion seeking changes in the editorial staff was beaten by similar figures, whilst the MC reiterated its unheeded proposal for consultative meetings with the EC. [Morning Star 11.6.85] In total almost 5,000 shareholders attended the three sections of the AGM, with most Management Committee candidates receiving votes of three thousand plus and most EC candidates getting well under two thousand, doing better at the Glasgow meeting. A motion to dismiss the editors was relatively poorly supported, this issue now fading in significance. The EC responded to its defeat by making a statement that now clarified some of the political issues at stake, even if they used pejorative terms of their own choice. The Management Committee, argued the EC, wanted a paper that “underrates the menace of Thatcherism, played down the need for the labour movement to win allies, brands attempts to discuss the realities of the situation as `defeatism’ and playing into the enemies’ hands” and “consistently attacks the Communist Party”.
Events inside the Party impacted heavily on trade union work. For example, during 1984-5 attempts to establish an effective cross Midlands meeting of activists in the two Party districts covering one T&G region were continually hampered by petty administrative quibbles by Tony McNally, CPGB (West) Midlands District Secretary. It was, however, not merely personal unhelpfulness motivated by factional considerations that hampered the work; revisionism positively discounted the value of trade union activism. At a CPGB Transport Advisory following the period Pete Carter had become national industrial organiser, one of the participants, Jack Askins, recalled that “in the 1947 period (the Party) had annual meetings (in) January (of) 200 or so (which would) lead into (the) TUC”, the Party planning and progressing the development of policy within the movement. He contrasted this from, when he was on the CP EC from 1973-79, when Gordon McLennan “used to oppose this concept of industrial work”. [GS contemporary undated notes CPTA – date lost] (Sadly, Askins was to die, aged 67, from a severe attack of asthma after many years of ill-health at the end of 1986.) The CPGB National Transport Advisory was now clearly totally isolated from the Party itself. Fourteen leading officials signed an open letter, published in the Morning Star: “We are Communists active in the Transport and General Workers’ Union and are appalled at the deprivation of the democratic rights of delegates at the North-West and London District Congresses by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party…. We shall fight for a Communist Party leadership that adheres to the principles of democracy and class consciousness which must form the basis of a Marxist party.” [Morning Star 12.12.84] Whenever trade union activists organised their own meetings things went well. But Party Centre was not about to let this go on. Heavy pressure to control all advisory meetings began, even if the centre’s `assistance’ was often inept. For example, a CPGB Transport Advisory was called on a day that abutted the Whit weekend and was in the middle of the new General Secretary election campaign, a timing that was at a pointless juncture. Meeting at the beginning or the end of the election might have had some point to it.
A similar resounding vote for established Management Committee candidates was given at the 1986 AGM. If one did not understand that the aim of key people now running the EC was actually the destruction of the Party itself, the logic of pushing this continued controversy would be elusive. Indeed, the clear next step was to begin disciplining Party members who had only publicly dissented from the mad course being pursued by the EC. Its position obviously did not match the majority view of shareholders. An average vote of 2,256 or 74.12% was registered out of the 3,094 shareholders who attended the three meetings in Glasgow, Manchester and London. Five candidates standing with the support of the CPGB EC were even more comprehensively beaten than in the previous year, getting an average vote of 788. A motion put by the Party’s National Organiser, Ian McKay, to change the political direction of the paper was defeated by a similar proportion, whilst an attempt to reject the minutes of last year’s AGM only got 360 votes. Former Chair of the Midlands Party and Management Committee member, Bill Warman – a giant in the labour movement in Coventry – expressed how he felt on hearing of the disciplining of Bill Alexander and others in the Sydenham branch, seeing it as an “indication of how far they (the Party leadership) have moved away from the basic principles of a Marxist party”. [Morning Star 11.6.86]
Seemingly paradoxically, in this period of intense hostility, tiny ultra-leftist factions were allowed to operate in the Party. “Proletarian” placed a motion at the AGM and another group, named after its organ, “The Leninist”, now switched from a position of neutrality over the PPPS controversy to supporting the EC. [Contemporary leaflet from “The Leninist”] Such machinations would not affect the eventual outcome of this struggle. Effectively, the CPGB EC’s war on the Star was fizzling out. A measure of the desperation of the revisionists was the petty complaints now being made much of. The CPGB General Secretary, Gordon McLennan at the London section of the AGM, said some harsh things. He referred to the Morning Star as “the gutter press“, alleging that the paper had reported the Communist Party as “advising its members to cross picket lines”. In fact, on March 25th the paper had reported a refusal of the Party to comment to the Star on reports in other papers that CP members who were journalists were crossing picket lines at Wapping. Two days later the paper reported that two members had not been “advised” by the Party to cross picket lines. The Observer had reported that the two people in question had told them that they had been told:”Carry on crossing”. The Star had an editorial, which took issue with the failure to instruct Party members not to cross picket lines, merely advising them. [Morning Star 13.6.86]
In Scotland, where the Party had most nearly reached the position of being a mass party, the infrastructure of the CPGB began to melt away. Intense purging of dissident elements by the revisionist leadership saw independent branch life undermined as an iron discipline from the District office was imposed. The largest branch in Aryshire was denied recognition, the Stirling branch was under investigation, the committees of the two strongest branches in Glasgow were dissolved, and the Pollokshields branch secretary was administratively deposed. In North Kelvin and Govanhill, members were expelled for refusing to divulge the names of Morning Star readers! Scores of life-long members were simply refused a new card, under the annual renewal system, for example in Paisley; the entire Dumfries, Rigside and Kilmarnock branches being in such a category. People who still held membership and were not under disciplinary action, but were thought to be unreliable, were simply not notified of meetings – especially those to elect delegates to congresses, as in Clydebank. The Aberdeen branch was not permitted to meet without a member of the Scottish leadership being present. Only three weeks before the District Congress, Edinburgh’s nine branches were collapsed into three easy to handle lumps, with appointed convenors to oversee them. This strenuous, administrative approach to securing control of `hostile’ territory was a model for what took place across the entire Party. It was unprecedented in Party history and broke every constitutional procedure there was. Everything and anything was justified by the aim of breaking opposition, in the end it would in fact break the Party itself. [“A Call to Scottish Communists”, cyclostyled document from the Communist Campaign Group (1986) pp3 and 9]
At one meeting of the Transport Advisory, possibly towards the end of 1987, Pete Carter had supplied names and addresses to aid its organisation, but Gordon McLennan had put out a note to Party District Secretaries, telling them to boycott the meeting! This, despite the fact that Carter had spoken to a Eurocommunist on the Party EC active in the T&G and explained that it was not really a Party meeting but a kind of `tight left’. In actual fact everyone who attended either had a Party card or should have done! Keith had accepted the innocuous (i.e. not related to internal CPGB matters) nature of the meeting, but McLennan was having none of it!
The CPGB leadership sought to rid itself altogether of Communist elements. For example, over 20 CPGB members of the Pollockshields, Glasgow branch and 15 in the Govan branch were arbitrarily denied 1987 Party cards. Jack Ashton, Scottish Secretary had told some members that they were “denied cards (because) they were opposed to policy decisions of the Party”! Pollockshields had not been able to constitutionally elect a delegate to Congress, or meet as a branch although none of the office holders – or anyone else – had been formally disciplined. But a third of the branch members, hand picked no doubt, had been invited to a “separate meeting of their own to choose a delegate”. Other local branches were known to have been manipulated; three people elected one Congress delegate. [Morning Star 20.10.87] Such efforts were geared towards the forthcoming congress. Amongst other things, the 40th Congress of the CPGB removed Rule 15b, requiring support of members for the Morning Star. A majority of around 170 to 40 or 50 delegates was evident at this Congress. [Letter from Richard Maybin, Morning Star 26.11.87]
In early 1987, a tightly organised meeting of those key players in the Party involved in opposition to revisionism but who were not allies of Straight Left was held at the Morning Star. This involved Bert Ramelson, former Industrial Organiser of the CPGB, Bill Alexander, former Assistant General Secretary of the CPGB, and Frank Watters, former Midlands District Secretary and later Yorkshire Circulation Representative of the Star. This resolved that `real’ Communists should seek to continue to “work within the organised Labour Movement”, “maximise the vote against the CPGB EC’s resolution on the Morning Star” at the coming November Congress and then meet after the Congress to make an assessment. [Frank Watters – handwritten recollections] This was an expression of the view that the bulk of Party members would not co-operate in the internal coup from that the previous five years had seen. That there was still a basis for winning the Party back from those who held the reins and that the Herculean effort by the bureaucracy to hand pick congress delegates would be difficult to keep up in the face of dignified appeals to the broader membership right across the range of opinions bar the most extreme of the revisionists. It was only stubborn loyalty that bound most members supporting the EC to acceptance of the Stalinesque stance the Party found itself in; but most did not truly wish to see the decidedly right wing direction the factionally inclined revisionists were now taking the Party.
Other thought differently and viewed the depth to which the bureaucracy of the Party had sunk as irreversible. Upsetting the “revisionist coup” required the cancellation of all disciplinary measures, the re-instatement to office of all those removed form positions in the Party and the reconstitution of a closed branches and party organisation. The problem was that these very measures had resulted in a gerrymandered framework of distorted democracy and, the view went, it would need the Party to be re-established to achieve all the necessary measures. Ray Colvin, in an article in the Communist Campaign Review, first openly put the case, effectively, for a breakaway. He defined the aim as “re-establishment of the Party”, or “the occupation and repossession of the party … the point at which the majority at the base of the party reverses the revisionist coup and declares its right to determine a new leadership”. [Morning Star 3.6.87]
It now looked as if the CCG had unilaterally decided to win all centrist dissidents – but Straight Left – into a new organisation. Prior to the CPGB Congress, a spate of adverts appeared in the Morning Star pushing CCG meetings and a social to be held around the Congress as a fringe activity. In an unfortunate move, the slogan used – “The Way Forward” – was the same as that pressed for in a series of Morning Star Supporters Group meetings. Just before the Congress, a massive advertising campaign appeared in the Star for meetings in London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Southampton, Brighton and in Scotland. A series of adverts appeared for a national Morning Star readers’ conference, planned for Birmingham in January in such a way that it obviously sought to create a sense of identification of the paper with the CCG’s plan.
After a repeat meeting of key players on December 6th, in the pub afterwards, Mike Hicks inadvertently revealed to Frank Watters the plan to hold a re-establishment congress the following Easter. He had not mentioned this in the meeting itself. The reason that this decision was supposed to be secret was that it breached the understanding at the early 1987 meeting to continue to press responsibly to reverse the CPGB’s witch-hunt from within and only after it was clear that maximum support was won to go for a major Communist Unity conference of those who supported the BRS, as distinct from a CCG inspired re-establishment congress. Increasingly, it seemed as if those working for the Morning Star at the time, or close to those that were, had judged that winning back the CPGB for Marxism was a forlorn but taking the prize of the paper away with them was the best that could be done. The logic of this position was that it would bolster the paper to have a party created in its image. This seemed to other the wrong way round to view strategy and rather downplayed the core notion of what a Communist Party was for.
A group of Communists in the North East produced a paper proposing a unity orientated conference and Ramelson, Alexander and Nora Jeffries, all widely admired veterans of the Party, wrote a letter to the Star urging an approach based on emphasising the establishment and building of Morning Star Readers Groups. Widening their role from support for circulation and finance initiatives into political discussion groups might lay the basis for an effective realignment of British Communism. Many were still members of the CPGB; some were only barred from holding office, so there was a big basis for uniting those who were expelled and those who were not within the Supporters Groups.
There had been over a hundred expulsions in six out of fifteen Party districts. Twelve on the Management Committee of the PPPS had been expelled. 600 members had been `excluded’ in London after the illicit closedown of the 1984 district congress. Few industrial advisories now existed in the CPGB, 23 advisories in the London district (i.e. probably all of them) having been dissolved. The YCL was now down to 44 members in three branches, having been 40 times that size only ten years. This single fact prompted the lowering of the age of entry into the party to sixteen. Support for an Alternative Economic Strategy had been dropped by the EC in February 1986 and it was also then announced that policy on the Common Market would be revised. Opposition to NATO and the EEC, to state incomes policies would now formally go at the 1987 CPGB Congress, along with support for a co-ordinated, militant unemployed workers movement. The advocacy of electoral pacts and the use of tactical voting in favour of the SDP-Liberal Alliance had already been aired in the May/June issue of Marxism Today. That this was Party policy was first denied, and then such an approach was supported by the congress.
Also, all of the 21 appeals against expulsion were dismissed by an average of 175 votes to 55. Whilst Rule 15b, committing Communists to buying, selling and supporting the Morning Star was changed, formally terminating the Party’s links with the paper. Frank Chalmers had urged “let us make the divorce complete”, winning a vote of 180 to 46. Even though the CPGB now “recommended” that members did not support the Morning Star, in the North East and in Scotland, members had been threatened with discipline for continuing to sell the paper. [“Which way for the Communist Party?” CCG c.1988]
The problem with the proposed re-establishment supported by the CCG was that it would not take anything like a majority of members, or even a majority of critics of the EC. It was a divisive approach; the West Middlesex District, hitherto firmly against the EC, had divided over the issue and only narrowly voted to opt for re-establishment, although the Morning Star only reported the fact of the decision and not the narrowness of it. The politics of the split, for that what it was, were opaque. The proposed leadership of the new party did not – at least formally – differ with the existing one over the nature of the socialist countries, or the strategy for transition to socialism in Britain. A majority of the 22 first disciplined after the London Congress were opposed to the breakaway. Only nine had openly declared support and at least a couple of these were unenthusiastic. There was no majority for the split on the Morning Star Management Committee. Outside of NALGO and the print unions, there was little support amongst key trade union figures.
It was said that all Industrial Advisories, presumably of the CPGB, had been asked to elect a representative to sit on the Preparatory Committee for a Re-establishment Congress but the names appeared to be self-selecting. A rally of 130 London Communists at the end of January, which raised £1,509 for the project, itself elected three representatives. It was quite falsely claimed that Communists in the “transport industry”, a euphemism for the T&G, had elected a representative. [Morning Star 1.2.88] Francis Wilcox had been `elected’ by a small group of people in Manchester and the Black Country but the bulk of T&G activists were hostile to this move and found themselves still in the CPGB when, as Tony Chater put it, supporters of a new party had engaged in “re-establishing the party on the basis of its rules and programme”. [Undated cutting – circa 25th April 1988 – from the Guardian] Mike Hicks, the new General Secretary of the CPB, explained to the founding congress of 150 delegates that “it was the toleration of factions which helped tear the Communist Party apart” and that “instead of uniting the party, factions divide it”. [Morning Star 25.4.88]
The `re-establishment’ congress of the CPB was held from April 23rd to 24th 1988 at what was then the North London Polytechnic, in Holloway. The discussion document issued by the Congress Preparatory Committee noted the “extremely divisive role” played by the CPGB leadership, how “virtually all links within the industrial working class had been severed” and how it sought to “terminate … support” for the Morning Star, which continued to play such a decisive role in providing leadership for the working class movement. As for the worries of those who remained in the CPGB but did not agree with its increasing anti-communism, the Congress did not explain precisely why a split had to be fought for at this juncture. The argument was put that, unless action was taken now, there would be little to save. It skated over the tactical and personality divisions that existed, saying that “many branches up and down the country” had backed the re-establishment approach. It did not address the complex argument about the legitimacy of re-establishment, satisfying itself with the thought that “re-establishment of the Communist Party cannot be a single, once and for all event, but a continuing process”. [The Re-establishment of the Communist Party – A perspective” – document issued by the Congress Preparatory Committee (1988 quotes from) pp6, 7and 23].
In the East Midlands, Fred Westacott put a detailed paper to the CPGB District Secretariat that opened with the line: “Now that it’s inevitable the Party is going to split…” For his part, he would have preferred the decision to split have been put off: “If I had any say in the matter, it would have been put off until later, but the decision has been made, so we have to define our attitudes.” But he had harsh words for some, thinking that, in the opposition to revisionism, we had been “bedevilled by the fact that comrades in the (East Midlands) leadership have been members of an organised faction, which discusses policy and tactics clandestinely outside of the District and have often pursued a line which didn’t originate in the district – and was sometimes opposed to the line of the District leadership”! He was speaking of the Straight Left faction.
Being aware that the Straight Left line was to stay in the CPGB, Westacott was blunt: “Factional organisations are by nature conspiratorial, selective and clandestine. They undermine respect and trust; they separate comrades from each other.” Even more bitter was the comment that: “The factional organisation built around Straight Left “makes a mockery of its protestations to believe in a Leninist Party. It’s a contradiction in terms…” Even though three of the seven members of the Secretariat were part of SL; Westacott felt that it was the “inept, inconsistent and dangerous tactics of the SL faction that … contributed to the situation we are in today”.
Despite all this, he argued that support for a split was stronger and more broadly based than the NCP splinter of 1977. To those who did support the BRS, but were still going to stay in the CPGB, Westacott put more coherent, better and more trenchant arguments than did even the Preparatory Committee for the re-establishment congress. He posed four good points about why the timing was right:
1) “… the revisionists are too firmly in control of the Party apparatus and the Party media (“MTD”, “7-Days” and “News and Views”)”
2) “They will tolerate comrades like us up to a point…to maintain the illusion of real democracy in the Party. In fact, we serve their purpose.”
3) “…the new programme (i.e. Manifesto for a New Times, which replaced the BRS) will convert the Party even more into a social-democratic party.”
4) “Whilst there are some differences amongst those in the leadership of the Party, they are not decisive…” [paper by Fred Westacott 12.4.88]
This was really the guts of the problem. However, the view taken by many who stayed in the CPGB, including many leading Communist trades unionists who had not been involved in Straight Left, whilst perhaps being a little theoretical in nature, was not entirely formed by the circumstances in front of them. It just did not seem a sound concept to set up a new party. Had they really lost the old one? The CPGB was so nervous at the founding of the CPB that it sent members of its EC as reporters for their weekly journal, 7 Days, who “tape recorded the congress”. The CPGB claimed a membership of 10,000 and it still looked likely that a majority were wedded to Communism. Had not the revisionists been heavily defeated in the 1986 PPPS AGMs, with less non-communist involvement than earlier ones, by approximately 2,200 to 800? The majorities established at Congresses by the revisionists were the result of clever and ruthless factionalism, not the real view of members. Three to one in favour of the revisionists at handpicked congresses, three to one against at mass membership events. The new CPB had the adherence of “1,591 Communists”, a good 500 more than they had expected. [Morning Star 25.4.88] At least three times that number of opponents to the revisionist leadership stayed within the CPGB and there were many who did not see themselves as anything but loyal who were nonetheless discomforted by much of the revisionist project. There was still all to play for argued many.
The most prominent Communist trades unionist, Ken Gill, was opposed to the new breakaway and he was by no means on his own. No foreign Communist Party recognised the CPB or attended its founding congress. Most of those who entered the CPB may have had little choice, being themselves disciplined, expelled or utterly disenchanted. But it seemed that Mike Hicks and Tony Chater, with the people around them, valued only the continued existence of the Morning Star. They accepted the mass expulsions, others wondered whether it might yet still be possible to eject the corrupt leadership from the CPGB.
Strictly speaking, the 1987 CPGB Congress had decided that there would be an inner-party debate over the next two years on the Party’s programme. The Congress was also told unambiguously that those who had left the Party during the recent crisis, including very many who had failed to re-register, would be welcomed back, provided they agreed to support Congress decisions – actually a requirement of being a Communist. About 60 who had been expelled would be allowed to re-apply and re-applications would be considered “carefully and seriously”. A London DC member, and a key figure in Straight Left, had already had his suspension from office lifted. Andrew Murray, who wrote to the Morning Star in this vein, argued that if this was an open debate then “the strongest ideas will prevail”. [Morning Star 28.11.87] Sadly, this was optimistic but the case for staying in the CPGB still did not seem so far from being wrong at the time to many.
But its November 1989 Congress marked the final rejection of the strategic aim of socialism as expressed in the British Road to Socialism. The Party was visibly falling apart; no less than 41% of the retiring EC declined nomination for election to the new leadership. Now a new strategy, the Manifesto for New Times, was adopted in place of the BRS. This document focused extensively on the changed nature of capitalist production to, essentially, suggest that the working class movement was now irrelevant. At a CPGB fringe meeting on the strategy held at the TUC, arguments to Martin Jacques, the main speaker, that this strategy abandoned socialism was met with a diatribe of management speak that implicitly supported the liquidation of the Party.
Whilst formal dissolution was defeated, the new General Secretary, Nina Temple, was clearly seriously pushing for this option. A continued determination to eliminate all dissent was evident. The replacement for the old King Street headquarters, in St John St, was sold off for £1.4 million. The rush to dissolve the Party now began. Not everyone who had been on the side of the revisionist project was pleased with this development. Marion Darke, who now chaired the Party, it is claimed, privately thought Nina Temple was “bonkers” to want to wind the CPGB up. One small sign of the trend was that the work of the CPGB International Department was reduced to two days a week, in a move reeking of a desire to ending all communist traditions
For some years now, Communists in the T&G had little contact with Party Centre. Pete Carter suddenly convened a formal meeting of the CPGB Transport Advisory for May 20th 1989. Individuals considered safe were given roles on the agenda in opening discussion on the work of the advisory, the current situation and a “first discussion on the BRS”. (PC letter 18.4.89) A subsequent letter referring to decisions of this “first meeting for some time”, gave four more dates for the rest of the year. [P Carter letter 10.7.89] By October Joe Keith, one of only two T&G members out of scores of active and hundreds of inactive CPGB members who supported the revisionist EC had been placed in position as secretary, reported in a circular to members that it had “been possible to re-establish the national “transport advisory committee (TAC). Although attendances at both meetings were small there is a resolve to build for the future.”
But the Party was divorced from the Left in the T&G, increasingly concerned to fragment it, and looked now looking to the `soft left’. This did not help work inside the T&G by any means. The CPGB was also, given its increasingly pro-EEC position, interested in developing a strategic response to the impending single market, due to be implemented in 1992. But the initiative faded, along with much else in the headlong dash to commit collective suicide … or was it murder?
The political situation in the socialist countries was to have a negative effect on the British Communist movement. The Morning Star Management Committee, when it met on 7th January 1990, was faced with the loss of a guaranteed 6000 daily copies, which had previously been ordered for sales in the Soviet Union. It was a devastating blow. Yet was Communism really about to fade away? 1991 was a year when Communist Parties in Finland, Cyprus, Nepal and South Africa registered significant popular support one way or another. Reform Communist Parties in Bulgaria and Albania swept the polls. A Communist entered the cabinet of Senegal’s government.
Yet that August the stunning events that saw Gorbachev replaced by Yeltsin and which led to the end of the USSR, had a greater effect on the CPGB, for its leadership was determined to dump the name `communist’ as well as having jettisoned its policies. Reuben Falber, a former Assistant General Secretary of the CPGB, now revealed that the Party had secretly received considerable sums of money between 1958 and 1979 from the Soviet Union. Nina Temple, the outgoing General Secretary of the CPGB, said that, had she known about the Soviet subsidies, she would never have joined in the first place. Her father, Landon Temple, once head of Progressive Tours – the travel agency indirectly owned by the Party, puzzlingly said he was unaware of assistance from the state owned airlines of socialist countries. The revisionist camp not only milked the scandal for all it was worth, they liquidated the considerable assets that the Party had acquired and then ran off with the transmuted `Moscow Gold’ to engage in think-tankism.
The timing of the Soviet cash revelations was perfect and strongly encouraged the relatively hand picked, many of them elderly, previously low key activists, to drift in a dream of disillusionment to dump Communism as the name and ideology of the organisation. The 43rd Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain was held in November 1991, its main job being to dissolve the Party. Yet the vote on a new name was not as decisive as the firm grip held on the Party by the revisionists suggested it should have been. Despite a continued ruthless manipulation of the process, a large segment of the Congress voted to retain the name. Three options were put to delegates. 71 delegates supported the retention of the name Communist Party of Great Britain, and by implication the theoretical base that went with such a name. 10 delegates voted for the Democratic Socialist Party and the majority, 124 delegates, voted for Democratic Left. (There were 2 spoilt papers.) It wasn’t just a name change. The very concept of a party was jettisoned also. After the dissolution of the CPGB its members were invited to join its successor, Democratic Left, which saw itself as a network.
Afterwards, a few joined the CPB, some the Communist Party of Scotland, set up after the dissolution of the CPGB, which permitted ex-patriot Scots to take up membership, irrespective of where they lived, but most dropped out. A small band of former CPGB members, active trades unionists anxious to maintain their communism beyond dissolution, sought another initiative. What had been the Straight Left group split, leaving a group called Communist Liaison, anxious to reach out to the broadest of constituencies left over from the old Party ready and willing to make such an initiative to others. From such groups, a meeting of about 30 or so held in Aston University in Birmingham, convened on the initiative of the former MSF CPGB Advisory.
It would be the start of “Communist Trades Unionists”, a loose national organisation that sought to bring together former members of the Party who were active in trade union work, whether they had joined DL, CPB, NCP, CPS, Communist Liaison, London Communists, the Islip Group, the Association of Indian Communists, the Labour Party, nothing or something. CTU had made something of a splash with the production of a daily bulletin at the TUC, called “Unity!” This initiative of a daily bulleting at the TUC would later be taken up by the CPB, once moves to Communist Unity had occurred. Three big conferences of CTU were held, involving a nucleus of around 80 interested individuals and a number of groups in individual unions also convened. The full CTU committee, cutting across all unions usually met in Birmingham and eventually would be the core of an approach for Communist reunification that took the form of a sizeable bloc of individuals applying to join the CPB in from July 1994.
A measure of the impact of a degree of reunification can be seen in the work of Communists involved in the T&G. No doubt other Advisories showed similar potential. From well before and also after the dissolution of the Party, Communists in the T&G kept up the meetings of the Transport Advisory as an entirely separate body from the CPGB – now minus the few hostile revisionists, who had only sought to take over in 1987 and, having seemed to be seeking to neutralise the body, had then completely ignored it – but it was not now `advising’ anybody. The CPB also had its own small Advisory but with only one or two activists with any real involvement.
At the second CTU conference, it was agreed to reconvene the amorphous Communist Transport Advisory that had been meeting sporadically as an independent body from the CPGB from 1985 together with the CPB’s advisory, which had met from its foundation. Indeed, a few joint meetings had already been held with the CPB Advisory, which had been quite separate and could continue formally to be so. At the first formal united `Communist Trades Unionists in the T&G’ meeting, with 24 adherents, Willie Queen pointedly noted that the “TGWU had not suffered (the) strains of splits within the Party”, whilst more widely there were still six communists of one sort or another on the STUC General Council, from T&G, MSF, NUM, FTA (actually a CPB member) and AEU. Unlike in London, most industrial comrades in Scotland had stayed in the CPGB. [GS undated contemporary notes – circa February 1992]
As the Marxist inclined diaspora emerging out of the CPGB’s demise began to bring together many who had not joined in the re-establishment process in 1988, the reality that the CPB had been created by a small group of people who had gathered an initial group of disparate expellees and disillusioned leavers of the CPGB now began to show. The personality of the CPB General Secretary, Mike Hicks, was a problem for many both inside and outside the Party. At the next CPB Congress the issue of seeking Communist Unity came up but little progress occurred, resulting in a more determined attempt to force the issue. During 1994, a small group of influential people associated with the anti-revisionist camp who had stayed inside the CPGB until the end publicly proposed a meeting with the CPB Political Committee to consider moving the process of Communist Unity forward. Despite some attempts to prevent this by Mike Hicks the meeting did go ahead and eventually resulted in an invitation to all individuals associated with the call to join by applying to the their local branch.
The struggle to inhibit a number of talented individuals from entering the Party had been reflective of a wider problem that Hicks and Mary Rosser, Chief Executive at the Morning Star, and now Hicks’ wife, and Tony Chater, editor of the Star, increasingly did not command the support of the members of their party in their leadership roles. There was in fact something of a struggle going on inside the CPB about its future direction and leadership. The Hicks-Rosser-Chater group had concentrated all power in their hands, yet the bulk of CPB members looked at people coming in and wondered why on earth they had not been in their party.
The tensions in the CPB over future direction came to a fore when John Haylett was appointed Star editor on Tony Chater’s retirement. This was much to the disgust of Hicks, Rosser and Chater, who left the PPPS Management Committee meeting in disgust, saying that he wasn’t coming back! Haylett’s start date of April 1st was, Rosser said, “a suitable date”, meaning it was April Fools’ Day. That story was not yet over and would re-emerge in the shape of a Morning Star workers’ dispute over the editorship that would see Haylett confirmed in 1998.
But it had been the Communist Party congress of November 1995 that had first seen some immediate effects of a new mood sweeping the CPB. From the summer, many key people had moved into membership of the CPB as a result of the Communist Unity process. The grip of the Hicks leadership on the Party was noticeably weakening. Mary Davies and Ivan Beavis were voted on to the EC despite not being on the recommended list. Those who had dominated the CPB, indeed who had pushed the precipitant strategy of breakaway in 1988, such as Tony Chater and the husband and wife team of Ron and Joan Bellamy were outraged, the latter shouting out loud at the results “it’s a faction – it’s all Straight Left”!! Such insularity from reality was by no means an aberration and the next three years would be difficult. The Communist Party of Britain formally dates the re-emergence of a real Communist Party from 1988 although some may quibble over the precision of this, what is for sure is that the 1995 Congress had really marked this for certain. There were still problems to come and it had taken the best part of a decade to come through the process but, from this point, it could now be truly said that the Communist Party had been truly re-established.
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