History CP early 50s early 60s


Loosing a third of the membership in a matter of months is clearly a very traumatic experience for a political party (though those who, in our own times, have retrospectively talked up the impact of this on the Communist Party in 1956-7 are not often those who note with concern the four-fold drop in Labour Party membership in the Noughties!!!) A comparable later experience for the British Communist Party was the assault by an alliance of bureaucracy and revisionism, which had captured the leadership, on those who defended Marxism in the early 1980s. In the foul atmosphere and loss of confidence that then ensued, the British Part lost more than half of its members within less than half the years that the modern new Labour Party had similarly shedded strength.

Nevertheless, if the impact of the Communist Party’s 1956-7 loss has clearly been wildly exaggerated, especially by those who have never been a member of the Communist Party and therefore have little personal comprehension of the internal dynamics that apply, it was a hard blow to loose many fine people amongst those who departed one way or another. Yet, whilst many Party offices did receive outraged resignation letters, there is little evidence of this having been in the sackful. Large numbers who did leave simply let their membership lapse, often more in sorrow than in anger. Many had left in spirit years before and had succumbed to nervousness about admitting their membership due to the intense anti-communism of the late 40s and early 50s. Many had long given up fighting for recruits or even attending Party events. Couples often spilt both ways, with one or the other staying, mostly with little animosity, if any, being involved between them at all. Very small numbers of the outraged drifted to Trotskyism 9it is claimed about two hundred), usually only very temporarily, though a handful of more celebrated cases have created an imbalanced impression of more.

A hitherto uncommented aspect of the drop in Party members between 1956 and 1958 is the plain fact that many of those lost were as a result of the Party enforcing its own rules as regards members’ duties. A key one of these is the requirement simply to pay the membership dues. In both 1957 and 1958, the Communist Party at local level addressed the actual state of its membership with some rigor. Arguably, during the worst days of the cold war, branch officers had turned a blind eye to those who simply carried a card and did little, if anything, even to the extent of failing to make the most basic of personal financial contributions.

In 1957, seven districts underwent a more thorough-going assessment of the state of members’ cards than they had done for some time. These regions “checked the cards of over 75% of their members”. [World News May 10th 1958] That is to say, that activists physically went to see members (mostly at their homes) and asked to see their membership card, to see if it contained the little sticky labels (with a “CP” logo in a different colour for each level of contributor) affixed to monthly squares. This proved that they had bought dues stamps from a national, district, area, or branch representative. That year, in addition to the seven districts attaining a 75% level of card checking, six districts checked the cards of somewhat less than 60% of their members. A small number of other districts fared worse than the 15 but the likelihood is that well over half the membership – and the most inactive ones at that – had been personally seen. The following year – 1958 – the overwhelming majority of the membership was visited in the interim between the annual issuing of new cards.

There is a strong probability that activists strongly committed to the majority Party line were accepting of the diffidence that some may have been expressing over renewal of membership. Some who were especially dismissive of the views of waverers were inclined to positively encourage them to leave. In time, these views would become elaborated, during the mid-1960s, as a debate about whether the British Communist Party ought be seeking to build a “mass party”, and whether that meant a large force or simply working in a very broad way, or a “cadre party”, that is to say composed only of highly committed and confident individuals.

With the revisionist challenge dealt with the Party set to the task of recovering its strength. Comment on the wake of 1956 had only focused on the actual membership size of the Party, even those with access to archives have, thus far, completely ignored what was actually happening on the ground, especially with regard to the interface the Party had with ordinary people. The 1958 registration campaign, to reissue members’ cards. saw as many as 430 new members in the early stages. The March EC decided upon a three-month recruitment campaign to last from April to June, which alone brought another 734 applicants. An aim of reaching 27,000 members, above the 1957 figure, was set for th Easter 1959 Party Congress.  Immediately, local Party organisations moved into public work to put the case for the Party.

In 1958, the Welsh Party held 23 public meetings in a mere five months, mainly with national speakers such as Willie Gallacher, Bill Paynter, Johnnie Campbell, James Klugmann, John Williamson and George Matthews. In all, some 700 people attended, with numbers ranging from 120 at Neath Town Hall to 50 at Llanelly, 40 – 35 of them non-Party – at Port Talbot and 37 in the Rhonnda.  There were thousands of admission tickets for entry sold, many many more than actual attendance, a contemporary device to both fund the event and to register its existence to less committed sympathisers. Well over half the meetings actually made a `profit’ and advertisements appeared on local cinema screens and, in local newspapers. [World News April 26th 1958]

In an early and far-sighted move, the Birmingham Communist Party held its first all-women’s event, when the Women’s Committee got 46 women together on a Sunday afternoon in a posh hotel April 1958. It is worth slightly deviating from the immediate chronology for a short section to elaborate upon the issue of the Party’s work amongst women. Labour movement practice in this period towards women was fairly universally both patronising and minimising. In contrast, the Communist Party always adopted a relatively bold and forward-thinking attitude to organising women. Retrospective critiques of the Party’s role in this arena, much informed by later feminist ideas, has been arguably anachronistically anti-historical in tone. Whatever may or may not be said of policy and practice in later decades as the 1950s receded, the Communist Party increasingly consciously strived to connect with both its own women members and the wider constituency of working class women.

There was good cause for the Party to do so, for women, especially young women, universally referred to in those days as `girls’, were moving into action en masse in many industries. 1959 `girls’  at Littlewood’s Pools, the gaming company, struck over wage reductions and at the Kraft food factory young women went on strike after  on-union labour was employed.  Alone amongst political forces at the time, the Communist Party immediately recognised this major shift in social behaviour and outlook and, in 1960, the Party would produce a whole series of mass leaflets, which focused on the practical concerns that worried many women. One pressed the point that eight million women worked and that this was not for the much-derided `pin money’ but was for an increasingly essential part of domestic budgets.

The Party’s women’s department may not have been challenging patriarchy but it may well have struck the tone women wanted to hear; perhaps even 21st century working women! “But going out to work and running a home is no picnic; it’s all rush, scurry and worry over the children since day nurseries and nursery schools are few and far between. The Party had been a pioneer in demanding equal pay for women and, then as now, thought “women’s wages are scandalously low”. But whilst many male trade unionists and almost all of their leaders held an ambiguous view of the trend for women to work, it was clear that “working wives are here to stay and it is high time something was done to raise women’s wages”.  [“Talking points for women” No 5, November 1960]

It was no accident that Party districts in parts of the country where women were now working en masse in manufacturing industries for the first time for a very long time had first picked up a new mood amongst women. Following the successful Birmingham lead of four years before – which, note, had been in the midst of a supposed terminal crisis of British Communism, Yorkshire’s women had what they called “Our Day”. This was a conference of 74 Communist women and a single male – the District Secretary, the redoubtable Bert Ramelson – lined up by the women to give a political report to what would be – as those who knew them could testify – a mass of similarly powerfully voiced and single-minded individuals! [World News February 24th 1962]

Back in 1958, the Birmingham Party had bought a `new-fangled’ Pye transistor loudhailer, which ran off four torch batteries, a miracle given that it needed no car, no 12-volt battery and no wires! Street meetings were made all the more easier. [World News May 17th 1958] In the Midlands and in Yorkshire, Party and YCL campaigns began to highlight a campaign against what was then called “rocket bases”, a term harkening back to the despised wartime Nazi `doodlebugs’ but actually  focusing on nuclear missiles now being widely located in Britain by the United States. [World News May 10th 1958]  Yorkshire was particularly to the fore in this issue, not the least because it had bases in Elvington and Weatherfield in striking distance; there were also protests at Ruislip and Burtonwood.

Whilst completely at one over the issue of American bases, the Party and the YCL at this time briefly parted company over policy regarding conscription, or `National Service’ as it was termed after the 1947 Act that came into force two years later and dominated the lives of young men aged 20 years for much of the 1950s. The Act required a period of one year to be served in the Armed Forces, mostly the Army, followed by a liability for a possible five years in the Reserve. But the Cold War, the war in Malaya and then the Korean war extended this first to eighteen months and then two years. The extended time was particularly useful in enabling National Servicemen to be used overseas. Thus a campaign to reduce the period of service to its original requirement effectively cut against the aim of government to use British armed forces as a tool of imperialist policies. A significant level of opposition to conscription existed, particularly but not exclusively amongst young men, mostly simply due to its unpleasantness, the truncation of career development, and the low level of earnings it provided.

By the mid-1950s, the Tories had promised to end conscription but at an unspecified point in time in the future. The Communist Party now took the view that a mass campaign focused on now winning a major reduction in the length of service to a single year could not only  have been won but could have also dealt a significant and damaging blow to the Tory Government in general. Right-wingers in the Labour Party and unions opposed such a campaign, purely out of their loyalty to the NATO alliance. Indeed, it was a lynch-pin in the argument over nuclear weapons. Labour’s policy focused on the imagined result of a policy of withdrawal from nuclear weaponry, to the extent that it claimed that such an approach would mean a commitment to conscription for all time as a replacement for the nuclear defence `shield’.

Whilst the YCL found itself propelled by the sheer hostility of young people into outright opposition to conscription, the Communist Party, which sought agreement in the labour movement to withdraw from the nuclear option, thus focused on a demand to first win a reduction mainly so as not to damage the larger issue. But the Suez Crisis forced the Tories to a general review of the nature of the Armed Forces in 1957 and the need for a large reserve of conscripts was replaced by a requirement for a rapid deployment force. The last intake of National Servicemen took place in 1960 and the last National Serviceman completed his tour of duty in 1963, finally removing the issue. In fact, despite the retrospective talking up of this difference by hostile commentators, the brief and rather slight point of difference in policy between the Party and its Youth League was not a matter of significance.
In 1958, Jimmy Reid, the former apprentices’ leader and now newly elected secretary of the YCL, summed up the problem facing the League as being whether its organisational capacity could “match up to the enthusiasm and eagerness with which young people would now follow a clear political lead”. Speaking at the Scottish Youth Festival of Socialism, Reid brought in 25 new YCL members at a stroke.
Things began to move on the campaign to re-grow the YCL, which had suffered perhaps more than the Party during the backlash. This came especially with the decision of the Party’s Executive Committee to make a detailed examination of the state its youth work at its September 1958 meeting.  The EC called for every District to set up Youth Affairs Committees or to appoint comrades responsible for the work and for the organisation by the Party of particular youth events. Other proposals were for continued allocation of cadres from the Party to the League, special attention to youth in industry, a call for assistance to Party parents, and sales of Challenge by every Party branch.  In London several rallies were held by the YCL, with Party help, with a total attendance nearly 300. Altogether 15,000 printed leaflets were produced to advertise the events. At one of these rallies, in Islington, John Gollan spoke to seventy young people.  Seventeen young people applied to join at these meetings, usually a fair guarantee of the beginning of a reasonably committed membership status. [World News & Views November 1st 1958]

But even more significantly in the short term, during 1958, Party membership in working class communities swelled. It seemed almost as many poured in as intellectuals and students washed out in other areas. Two Yorkshire villages, Moorends and Fishcross, organised a Party get-together of 80 Party members and friends from the former and 56 from the latter; 11 new members were signed up that night. Other social evenings were planned for Darton, Stainforth, Edlington, and Moorefields, where similar nights of heavingly crowded rooms would see yet more sign up. Party women’s groups were established in Barnsley and Moorefields, with more meetings of women planned in Darton and Arksey. At a Sheffield May Day rally attended by over a thousand people, Harry Pollitt spoke, and 75 new miners and miner’s wives joined up in one night. At a rally in Doncaster, 102 joined.

In Wales miners were reported as joining long-established pit groups at Bedwas and Seven Sisters. The Party was building new members at isolated places such as Blaengwynfi. One activist reported “our small branch has had a new heart since Gollan spoke. At New Rochwood, we had no members; now we are thriving and selling Will Paynter’s new pamphlet at the pit head.”  In Scotland, it was noted that the Party had made inroads into Newcraighall pit, seemingly one which had been awkwardly difficult before. Six recruits had been signed up there, whist another awkward place, Michael Pit branch, made 11 new members. It was not just mining communities – membership had doubled in the South St Pancras since 1957, and there were now 50 members. Eva Taylor, the branch secretary reported. [New & Views 24th January 1959]

On June 29th 1958, the Party held a major national rally in Hyde Park, which went under the title of a new British Party slogan “For Peace, Work and British Independence’ and was attended by thousands of members, supporters and allies. This was the first ever such event held by the Party in its history and as such was a defiant celebration of all that was good in British Communism. [World News May 24th 1958] Sales of the British Road to Socialism were now being prioritised, almost certainly as a defensive riposte to the severe attacks the Party had endured, both internally and externally. Nearly three thousand (!) copies were sold in factories and localities in West Middlesex, alone. The Party branch in the tiny village of Tonyrefail sold 56 copies and decided to order another 70 to sell.  [World News June 29th 1958]

In the recruitment campaign that began in 1959, new members to the Party were coming in thick and fast. One in three new recruits from Yorkshire was a miner. Ten factory branches in West Middlesex had increased their membership. In Scotland, the Michael Pit branch alone made 11 new members to now stand at 28 and they were going to aim for 60 members! Lancashire had targeted women and got 27 new members and were looking for another 23 listed as possible members. A veteran Communist, William Joss, was going to be 80 years old, so the Scottish Party looked to win 80 new members in his birthday week to present to him at a social evening!  In the run up to the 1959 congress, the Party even aimed to double the rate of recruitment it had been having. 1,590 new and additional cards had been issued even in January. [World News January 31st 1959]

One third of Scotland’s new recruits were women, a higher proportion than existing Party membership. Yorkshire held a series of seven successful recruiting meetings just for women. The week that the re-registration campaign was declared closed, a total of 2,265 recruits had been made by the Party. Nineteen joined at a public meeting in Willesden, and 13 at one in Nottingham. In a mass canvass of the Sheffield Brightside constituency some 500 copies of pictorial broadsheet, `The Future in Your Hands’, were sold. Every one of the 100,000 printed nationally had gone. 110 copies were sold to repairers on the Queen Mary in Southampton. One in five workers at two Surry factories bought one. 200 were sold in a Lanarkshire steelworks. [World News February 21st 1959]

In London, a Party factory group in Greenwich trebled its membership and over 160 new members were made in the capital during the local elections, when half a million leaflets were distributed in the 58 wards contested.  Nottingham Communists focused on Byron ward and, after selling 350 of the 1d special, `It’s a family affair’, an election special, won nine recruits. [World News June 6th 1959]

Over a hundred young people attended Yorkshire’s Festival of Socialism, a quarter of them not members either of the Party or YCL, more than half of those joined during the event.  [World News June 13th 1959]

The Daily Worker noted that a halt to circulation decline had been achieved – and it was the only national daily to be able to boast this. Efforts such the 23 West Middlesex branches that added 81 copies a day to their orders had been crucial to this. 326 Party branches had responded similarly. Over a thousand papers were sold during the dozens of meetings that were held when the Daily Worker van toured Wales.  A special issue was printed on May 22nd, with extra pages; Scotland sold an extra one and a half thousand and Lancashire a thousand. A Glasgow engineering factory taking in 208 papers daily set an aim of adding 80 more to their order. 750 extra papers were sold in West Midlands car factories when an article by Les Gurl, the Secretary of the BMC JSSC appeared; workers were “full of praise for the article”. 149 copies of the Daily Worker were sold outside Labour Exchanges (`job centres’) in Merseyside. [World News June 6th 1959]

Mining villages in Yorkshire began to play a game of `socialist competition’. In Darton, 40 people turned up to a Communist rally and 8 joined the Party; Moorends had 80 to a rally and 11 joined up. Darton rejoined the fight and got 90 to a meeting with 14 Party and 3 YCL recruits but went back into the village to get another seven who had promised to come and join and didn’t! A few Communists had won NUM pit delegate positions and half a dozen had challenged right wingers for the first time and only very narrowly failed to break through, including one Bill Blessed in Hickleton, whose powerfully-voiced son was just about to move into the world of acting.

Communists active in the Yorkshire coalfield at this time anecdotally, if privately, later noted that miners genuinely did not seem fazed by talk of tanks rolling in; they joked that they hoped the Communists would employ them in Yorkshire pits against their enemies in the NCB and the union and liberal-minded criticism of these hard men, steeled in politics, who called themselves Communists seemed misplaced to ordinary workers. After all if you were in a tough fight, you wanted someone tough on your side! Proving your mettle by getting stuck in to the real world of rents and wages, prices and welfare made a difference to how you were perceived. As local Party organiser Frank Watters wrote at the time, “these advances are not something which came out of the blue. They are the result of hard and consistent work…” [World News July 11th 1959]

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