Friday 28 February 2014

How did the British Communist Party of 1957 handle a revolt in its ranks?

This is a bit of personal and political excavation.

When I was 11, in 1957, our parents told me and my brother that they were leaving 'the Party' - the Communist Party. For all our lives up till then, their (and our) personal, emotional, social and political lives were dominated by 'the Party', we had even visited 'East Germany' in August 1957 as part of a Communist Party (the CP or the CPGB) teachers' delegation to the GDR (or DDR). My memory of our parents explaining why they had left was that it was something to do with 'organisation' and something which I didn't understand at the time - something to do with it not being possible for 'Districts' to talk to each other.

Over the next 50 or more years, I talked many times with my parents about politics but didn't often re-visit this exact moment. The reasons for their leaving blurred into a more general dissatisfaction or disagreement with CP and the Soviet Union. However, that said, my father often made clear that at the time, he had agreed with the action of the Soviet troops invading Hungary in 1956.

As most people on the Left know, my parents were far from being on their own in this moment. Thousands of people left the CP between 1956 and 1958, some leaving in protest against the invasion of Hungary, some in the way that their Party had covered this event, some in protest at the revelations of Kruschev of what came to be called 'Stalin's crimes', others over this matter of 'Party democracy' and yet others over a general feeling that the leadership of the CP hadn't been straight with them about what they did or did not know about the general matters of 'Stalin's crimes' or specific matters to do with the disappearance of British Communists who had been living in the Soviet Union - the most prominent of these resigners, being Brian Behan, brother of the playwright Brendan Behan.

In Britain, these events played out as personal crises for friends and families - particularly people like our parents who had a reverence and allegiance towards Communism, the great canonical Communist or Soviet moments (Cable Street, Rent Strikes, Spanish Civil War, Dimitrov's defence, Stalingrad, French Resistance, post-war Rent Action, CND)  and individual Communists. At another level, it was also played out in conferences, 'smoke-filled rooms', delegations, and documents full of the jargon of marxism, soviet-style Communism, CPGB lingo. Up until recently, I had never read any of the specific documents to do with how the party handled the question of its own organisation at the very time that my parents made the decision to leave. My knowledge of it was restricted to family or family friends' accounts.

However, in the last few weeks I have got hold of two documents:

1. Communist Party, 25th Congress Report' of April 19-22 1957.
2. The Report of the Commission on Inner Party Democracy, also marked as being for the 25th Congress, April 19-22 1957.

Within this second document are two separate pieces - the 'Majority Report' and the 'Minority Report'.

Some general thoughts:

1. Because of the CP's links with the Soviet Union, it seems to have given the CP's leadership an entitlement to talk as if they nearly ruled the world. This is partly a result of the marxian rhetoric about the 'inevitability' of Communism, partly about the heroism of the Soviet people during WW2 but also about the sheer economic power of the Soviet Union, China and the Warsaw Pact. In personal terms, the leadership did plenty of wining, dining and globetrotting which enabled them to feel part of this world-ruling biz. I remember a friend of parents being self-mocking about some of this, calling some of this globetrotting as going on a 'peace creep'.

2. In spite of this grandiose rhetoric, the truth was something rather different. If we judge the CP on its prime purpose ie to lead the working class to power, it turned out to be a project that was never achieved - nowhere near. What's more it was, in retrospect, or at the time, deluded for them to think that they were anywhere near achieving this. In fact, the rhetoric I'm referring to is Lilliputian - it's grandiose coming from the mouths of spokespeople running a very, very, very tiny organisation. I'll qualify this in one respect - of course the CP had 'influence' in many different ways, not least of which was 'intellectual'. As it happens, the source of one of these great contributions positioned himself in the 'Minority' and resigned shortly after its Report was rejected ie Christopher Hill.

3. The CP at this time was fully professionalised, with many full-timers and the ruling committees of the CP were full of these full-timers. As we shall see, there were plenty of party members that realised that this was both wrong in principle and practice. Once there was a group of people whose livelihoods depended on the CP, inevitably the decisions they took were in part ruled by this - no matter how meagre the salaries concerned. Any socialist organisation has to take this matter on board and openly discuss how to be professional and effective while not creating a self-serving elite.

4. The Minority Report doesn't shy away from any of this and refers to the outside world in a way, which in comparison to the official documents seems heretical.

Some specifics:

1. The argument at the heart of the Majority and Minority Reports is about 'democratic centralism'. Any political party has to decide how to discuss ideas, politics, policy and action. Any political party has to decide how to turn these discussions into policy and action. The history of left-of-Labour politics is jam-packed full of rows, certainties and schisms in relation to this. The CP at the time acknowledged that what it was doing had 'shortcomings' and it had made 'errors', but in so doing it was 'reaffirming and explaining the principle of democratic centralism' (p.iii in 2 above)

The buzz phrase that circulated at the time was that 'there had been a tendency to overstress the centralism and to understress the democracy'. However, the Majority Report, stated, 'we have to apply...the maximum democracy with the necessary centralised leadership and discipline'.

One of the reasons for this is that 'we' have to set about 'developing a correct political line of advance for the working class'. This should be done with a free discussion but 'we not mean freedom to advocate ideas hostile to the interests of the working class and contrary to the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism'.

From the perspective of 2014, this feels to me like a combination of pissing in the wind, grandiosity, self-delusion and arrogance. The use of the word 'correct' always fills me with trepidation, especially coming from any organisation or group that finds it extremely difficult to convince more than a few thousand people of its 'correctness'. There is something quasi-religious about it, ie that though we are only a tiny group, some kind of higher being or greater wisdom is with us. In the case of the CP of the time, it could claim that the vast societies and armies of the Soviet and Chinese blocs were indeed with them. In the case of groups without this allegiance, it does, as I say, nearly always sound deluded.

The arrogance comes with the notion that this particular group of people were leading and advancing 'the working class'. Fight for ideas, policies and actions that you think will advance the interests of working class people, but at least be realistic about the fact that there are a) others who think they are doing the same thing and b) if you are a tiny organisation you aren't going to do much leading anyway.

Further on the matter of democratic centralism, on p.5 the Majority lays out further reasons for its necessity critiquing the criticism (!) they had received that d.c. was a 'Russian idea imposed on British Communists by the Russian Communists in the Communist International'. No, says the Report, d.c came out of the British trade union movement which developed 'central organs and committees [that] should have authority'.  This argument is taken further in showing how any other organisation will produces schisms, and, when faced with the centralised power of the state, will be defeated. Indeed, its the centralised power of the political and executive committees of the CP which will enable it to oppose this state, it argues.

Of course, this debate was going on following the 20th Party Congress in the Soviet Union, which appeared for a moment to blow apart at least some of these ideas if only by showing that they had led to  a point at which Stalin and his small group of trusties had supreme power. In this Report this is jargonised and depoliticised into something called the 'cult of the personality' . In other words, the real roots and means of Stalin's power are not questioned and so there is no need to question the real roots and means of the power of the CP's own executive.

In retrospect, we are entitled to ask if there is or is not an inevitablity about what's going on here: ie that certain kinds of organisation, with its ideas about the 'correct' line, leadership and centralist structure will always end up with what the CP at the time called 'errors' and 'shortcomings' or in Stalin's case, 'crimes'.

An indication of a related debate focuses on what was called then the 'panel system' but which in other parties and unions has been called 'the slate'. This is the group of people that the central or executive recommends to the membership as the right people to vote for. Whether in the Soviet Union, any political, recreational or religious organisation, anywhere in the world, it's not hard to see how this seems on face value to be 'practical' or 'open' or 'reasonable' but in practice often (inevitably?) to turn out to be how a specific interest group, or outlook becomes an elite. If your organisation believes in elites - fine. If your organisation is intent on demolishing elites then it's a contradiction.

Now complicate this with the fact that the 'slate' or 'panel' might be made up of a majority of people being paid by that organisation (in the jargon, 'full-timers'), then this means that the system becomes open to several kinds of problems. People are, in effect, asking the organisation to vote for them, not simply because they are supposedly the best leaders, but also to give them their livelihood - no matter how meagre that may be. This is the point at which the 'interests' of the Party overlaps uncomfortably with self-interest.

Ironically, this system is defended on the grounds that it prevents schisms, and yet the whole history of parties operating like this, is one of schisms. One day people are 'great comrades' and the next they are dismissed or hounded out as being 'dangerous' or 'foolish' or any number of the crimes that great ex-comrades can be prey to. I deduce from this that it's the very fossilized nature of these central committees that creates the inevitablity of this kind of schismatic activity. What's more it then fossilises the schisms as if people in reality can one moment be wholly right and the next wholly wrong. (This can be overcome with whole load of bullshit 'proving' that that they were always a bit wrong, then a bit more wrong...and we knew all along etc etc yawn yawn).

The matter of full-timers on the Executive was discussed by the Majority Report and it was decided to reduce this to 50% but, as we shall see, there was another shadowy committee not referred to in the Majority Report.

There then follows a good deal of detail about the relationship between branches and the centre - something that any political or social party has to address and whether branches and/or districts can or should talk to each other without talking to the centre. A lot of this is shadow-boxing because as everyone knows who has ever been anywhere near an organisation, what this means is that minority views at odds with the centre's views must not be allowed to circulate through discussion between branches or districts but if the centre wants to informally get branches or districts to do the 'correct' thing, it sets up what is in essence a 'central' faction and gets decisions through.  I don't want to suggest that getting any of this is simple but at the same time, it's no use pretending that the words on the paper necessarily tell us what actually goes on.

In the case of the CP of this time. the whole apparatus was justified on the grounds that 'the Communist Party is the decisive Party of the working class and necessary to lead it to victory'. (p. 31 in 2 above ie the Majority Report). This is the 'raison d'etre', 'primum mobile', driving force, ultimate justification. It is the tenet that is beyond argument. It is the binding agreement that any member has to sign up to. The only problem is, that we can see now, that it was fantastical, it wasn't happening when it was written, it didn't become more likely as the years progressed and then when the Soviet system collapsed so did the CPGB. (Yes, there are at least 2 CP's (that I know of - there may be others) who claim to be the true successors of this CPGB but even by my saying that there are two exposes as folly the notion that the way to approach this whole matter of social change and transformation is through an organisation which claims that it is 'the decisive Party' . I mean, guys, at least say, we 'hope' that it is! Or that we acknowledge that others before us and alongside us say something similar...!

Again, the analogy is with the schisms of dissenting Christians, each more sure than the other that their way is the true way and that people who do or do not cover their hair, or who do or do not use a particular wording in their ceremonies are doomed.

The Majority Report ends with a set of specific proposals aimed at making the Party more 'democratic'. Whether it did or not, I'll leave to others who lived through it to say. Ultimately, this same Party collapsed when the Soviet Union et al collapsed. Surely, if it was as independent of Soviet policy, as is claimed at various places in the bulletin of the Party Congress, and if its democratic structures were in good nick, then it wouldn't itself have ended in collapse. I realise that this is - I believe - a teleological argument - ie the ends or outcome 'proves' the fallaciousness of the process leading up to those ends, but I don't think I need to apologise for that.

2. Following the Majority Report, several members - Harry Bourne, Joe Cheek and Kevin Halpin (who I remember speaking at meetings) offer amendments. Some of these are quite strong in tone, suggesting longer time being needed to examine the problems, a new constitution allowing for the circulation of motions or 'resolutions', membership on the Executive comprised of regional reps. Otherwise, says Halpin - and he mentions the 'Political Committee' - there is a 'strong chance' that there will be a 'self-perpetuating' process at work with committees making recommendations to each other.

3. The full committee including those who dissented in the Minority Report and those who offered amendments is listed as:

Emile Burns, Kevin Halpin, Christopher Hill, Nora Jeffrey, James Klugmann, William Lauchlan, Malcolm McEwen, John Mahon (Chairman), Betty Reid, Joan Bellamy, Harry Bourne, Peter Cadogan, Joe Cheek, Alex Clark, Charles Miles.  (15 members)

There were 11 meetings not all were attended by all.

4. The Minority Report follows on pp 45-60 [last page un-numbered and back page of the booklet] and is signed off by Peter Cadogan, Christopher Hill and Malcolm McEwen.

The opening line says that their 'belief' is that 'the Commission has failed to discharge the task given to it: "to examine and report upon problems of inner-Party democracy, including Congress procedure, and to make recommendations as a basis for discussion".' (p.45)

They point out that the commission was itself made up of 'ten full-time Party workers and one member of the Daily Worker staff but only four who were not full-timers (including only one industrial worker)'.  Indeed, five of the full-timers were on the Party executive!

If you wanted an illustration of how to secure an outcome favourable to yourself and/or your group/faction/tendency then surely this is how to do it.

They point out that '[i]t was proposed on a number of occasions that the Commission should make a detailed investigation into a number of specific instances, to see exactly how inner-Party democracy worked,  and what control was exercised from the centre, and by whom.' (p.45)

Further, that a 'detailed investigation' should be made of the 'handling of events following the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Communist Information Bureau, and of the handling of the Party press since the Twentieth Party Congress.' 9p.45)

Further, that there 'are clearly valuable lessons to be learned from the degeneration of inner-Party democracy in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland'...though they then suggest that there are lessons to be learned from China where the 'Party appears to have developed inner-Party democracy with considerable success'. (p.46)

Or not.

They attack the Majority's proposals as they would 'perpetuate the bureaucratic centralism that has had such disastrous results in Eastern Europe'. Lenin's idea of 'iron discipline' was 'essential' for the CPSU in Lenin's time but 'inappropriate to our Party or to present British conditions'. (pp46-47)

Democratic centralism, they suggest, should be 'dropped' as it has 'come to be associated, like "People's Government" or "People's Police" with the bureaucratic centralism found in the USSR and Eastern Europe. (p.47)

Further, '...the unity of the Party has rested too often on an uncritical acceptance of a "line" handed down from above. This is never likely to be the case again; [Oh really? M.R.] the Party has to find a new way to ensure unity in action.' (p.47)

Further on 'iron discipline' the Minority suggests that it 'might be possible in a small party of professional revolutionaries, but it is unobtainable in a mass party such as we hope to build, and it is unrealisable in practice in our conditions.' (p.48)

'We do not think that members of the Party should carry on a campaign against every decision with which they disagree.' (p.48)

'[Not] every member can be expected to fight for a policy to which he is deeply opposed on principle, such as the Executive Committee's statements on the Twentieth Congress fo the CPSU or on the Soviet intervention in Hungary.' (p.48)

'How can it be suggested that Party members, who have publicly expressed their disagreement with the Party Policy on Hungary have a duty to support that policy in their trade union branch?' (p.48)

'One reason why Communists are suspected of being dishonest is because they sometimes appear to be putting over a "line" in which they have no sincere belief. And this is actually acclaimed as a virtue by the majority of the Commission, which fails to see the damaging blow that this strikes at the integrity and reputation of Communists and of the Communist Party, particularly when the "line" changes overnight, and Party members are expected to argue the reverse of what they were saying the day before.  (p.49)

'If the leadership of the Party is honest and true to principle, if it tells the members the whole truth,  or all it knows, about the situation, if by its record it earns the respect, affection and loyalty of the Party membership, if it refrains from using its control of the Party machine and press to smack down those who are seeking for information or expressing honest criticism then in critical siutations where it has to take quick decisions and appeal for a quick response, the response will be given instantly, unanimously and enthusiastically - particularly of the leadership is always ready to look at the decisions again in the light of the results, and to lay bare any mistakes that have been made. But insistence on the duty automatically to accept and fight for policies in which there is no confidence, can only have bad results.' (p.49)

On p. 50 they talk of the famous Pollitt and Campbell affair at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Pollitt and Campbell didn't support the CPGB's policy on not supporting the War.

'Since the Twentieth Congress there have been many complaints about the handling of discussion in the 'Daily Worker', particularly of the refusal of the editor to publish correspondence on various subjects at different times, or correspondence from groups of readers on the ground that a number of signatures to a letter constitutes a "faction".' (p.52)

'...when the Party extends its control to the entire press, all independent political publication comes to an end, and the press becomes in politics at least a gramophone sounding the official Party policy.' (p.53)

'We cannot expect the Party to win a mass membership of workers or intellectuals, on the basis of a proscribed list of forbidden literature, with freedom of expression limited to an occasional contribution to the Party press.' (p.53)

Under the section 'Methods of Election', (p.54-58) the Minority proposed an end to the 'panel' system, citing examples of lack of information about the candidates on the panel who members were voting for.

In this section, there is a critique of the 'Political Committee': one of the members of the Minority tried and failed to get info on how the Political Committee of the Party arrived at picking the panel up for election. The Political Committee, they say, 'consists of the full-time Party leadership, and this appears to have the biggest voice in the selection...we gathered the impression that in the course of the preparation of the Political Committee's list there are confidential discussions between the General Secretary of the Party and individual members of the retiring Executive Committee on whether they should, or should not, stand again." (pp54-55)

There follow recommendations about altering the composition of the Executive in terms of full-timers, representatives of the districts who would 'be known to those who elect them'. (p.57)

Then, under 'Pre-Congress Discussion' (pp.58-60):

'The major conflict [in the Party], as it is disclosed by the correspondence in the Party press and the discussion at aggregate meetings, concerns the relations between the British Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A growing minority believe that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee to Soviet policy divides, discredits and isolates the Part, identifies Communism in the minds of British people with the denial of personal freedom and with certain indefensible policies, and renders ineffective the Party's efforts to combat anti-Soviet tendencies.' (pp58-59)

Also on p.59 is an account of Malcolm McEwen (one of the Minority) being forbidden to speak 'outside his own branch'. On p. 60, there is the recommendation that the policy of preventing members from speaking to other branches should be discontinued, the 'Party press' should open its columns to controversy and allow it to be circulated.

I offer the previous without any further comment as it's self-evident where the Minority is coming from.  One core question is why was it all rejected?

5. A bureaucratic, 'internal' answer comes in the 25th Congress Report (ie 1, above).

People reading this now will be struck, as I've said, by certain unrealistic elements - a familiar note struck by very nearly all left-of-Labour groups...victories are just about to be had, the air is full of words like 'winning' and 'opportunity', on 'our' side and a 'crisis' for everyone else. As many people testify, this is one of the main reasons for left-of-Labour burn out. You can't be always nearly winning.

Needless to say, by 1957, everything is working out well in the Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary and they're 'driving ahead', and 'comrades' who wrote a letter to the New Statesman 'might well draw a few lessons from that,' says John Gollan, General Secretary. (p.16)

The problem of Stalin, Gollan explains, was down to his 'personal character' (p.18), which would be laughable if not tragic. Here after all is the General Secretary of the main marxist organisation 'explaining' how Stalinism and the Soviet Union functioned in terms of a classic non-marxist explanation. (p.18)

This is followed by a eulogy to the Soviet Union, the 'great historic role of the Russian revolution, and nothing and no one will ever be able to question or equal it.' (p.19

(I'm not sure whether this is folly, cynicism, delusion or just plain unpleasant.)

Meanwhile, 'recruitment' is up (p.21) and the 'capitalist press' are not 'so cheerful' as they 'hoped our Party would be seriously crippled.'

People who've left the Party 'are not our best comrades, otherwise they would not have left. The highest quality anyone claiming to be a Marxist can possess, is political loyalty to one's class and one's Party.' (p.22)


'Others, it is said, still remain Marxists, and at some stage or other will create some new Marxist organisation of the working class. They never will. Historical circumstances have created the Party organisations of the British working class, the Labour Party and the Communist Party. There is no such thing as Marxism without the Communist Party.

In fact, to abandon the Communist Party, is to abandon Marxism...' (p. 22)


There is of course an attack on the Minority Report for being the 'denial of majority rule' (p. 22) claiming that the ideas are 'essentially sectarian'. (p.23)

Of course.

And then Gollan gets back to the 'thousands' who 'could be won' to the Party and the 'increasing difficulties for capitalism'. (p. 23)


His final line is:

'Let us consolidate the Communist Party, the indispensable weapon for the advance to socialism'. (p 25)

George Campbell follows this address with some interesting rhetoric about making a 'Socialist Britain which will be truly great'. (p.28) and the Soviet Union 'resolutely repulsing the opportunist elements' (p.29 (Kruschov's words)

He points out that progress towards Socialism will occur 'under the leadership of the Marxist vanguard' (p. 31) and that 'the advance to Socialism requires the Communist Party' (p.34) and that 'Socialism has nowhere been established without such a Party.' (p.34)

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, a 'correction of past mistakes will lead to a further strengthening of the Socialist system' (p.41)

Next up in John Mahon who chaired the report on inner-party democracy.

He points out that the CP is the 'vanguard of the working class'. (p.44)

Members might be excused if they thought they had heard this already, perhaps?

'The Communist Party exists to lead the working class' (p.44)

'The Communist Party has to be a unified political force, able to give leadership in all circumstances of the class struggle.' (p.44)

'The British working class...requires that its political party be a Marxist-Leninist Party'. (p.47)

Mahon then reasserts the argument for democratic centralism but concedes that there may have been some undesirable ways in which this has worked out. '

He rejects the criticism of the Political Committee on the grounds that 'The whole history of the working class proves that leadership has a decisive role to play'. (p.54) and it's the CP which develops the right 'leadership'.

'The Political Committee is an essential organ of the Executive Committee...' as it gives 'prompt and effective leadership on questions arising between the meetings of the Executive.' (p.55)

'The decisions of Congress will provide our Party with an immediate policy and a line of advance for the whole working class.' (p.55)

Later in the booklet there is a section on 'Events since the Twentieth Party congress of the CPSU and the position of the Party' (p. 63-71) in which the writer states that 'prospects of the world advance to socialism are extremely favourable.' (p.66). It is conceded that there 'has been a big gap between the Executive Committee and the branches' (p.68)

To the end of this section the writer says that 'we' must oppose 'any attempt to introduce petty-bourgeois ideas and practices into our Party theory and life'. These 'tendencies' are an 'expression of the right opportunist and liquidationist outlook which constitutes the main danger facing the Party at present.' (p.70)

The can be 'quickly overcome' whilst rejecting 'those serious sectarian tendencies which have been expressed in reaction to the liquidationist tendencies'. (p.70)

Quite what people made of this twisting turning name-calling is not revealed here.

And again...'the favourable opportunities for mass political action against the Tories are greater than ever before...' (p. 71)

On the back page of the booklet the Executive Committee is listed - but not the Political Committee.
I personally did not know any of them, but I know that my parents knew Max Morris and Brian Simon pretty well. Interesting to see the name Frank Haxell there who, I believe got into a spot of bother with vote-rigging in the electricians' union, Reg Birch who broke way to found one of the Maoist fragments and Arnold Kettle, the literary critic and academic, father to Martin Kettle who writes in the Guardian and told the story recently of how MI5 kept a file on his father.

6. So what can we make of all this?

For people who have never been interested in left-of-Labour politics of any kind, then this is just a load of hooey. End of.

For people who are interested, there are various strands which are worth discussing, eg the 'revolution just round the corner' syndrome which involves being triumphalist before the triumph and a harbinger of doom (for capitalism) even while capitalism itself thrives.

Then again, the whole concept of the vanguard as expressed here should give us pause for thought. Here it is intimately linked to the Soviet Union, which itself is seen as the vanguard of the international scene, even as it was imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people and worse.

The matter of 'errors' is dealt with in a way that will be familiar to anyone on the Left: an apparent admission that mistakes have been made, even as the leadership asserts that it was in general right, that it is doing the right thing, that anyone who criticises is wrong, the requisite bit of name-calling, heavy-handed warnings about how life is impossible on the outside of the Party.

There is a serious discussion lurking in the Minority Report to do with what might be a reasonable way to organise a Socialist organisation. In some of the paragraphs in response there is an engagement with this, but only under a general heading that the core structure is pretty well OK.  I don't write this with any expert knowledge on what might or could be better. Various organisations in my lifetime have tried other forms. People are trying to come up with new ones right now.

7. Personally, I now have the answer as to how and why my parents left. My father often referred to the 'gramophone record' that is talked of in the Minority Report. I remember friends and ex-friends of my parents staying on. I remember meeting the sons and daughters of members and ex-members when I was on CND marches, then again at university during the 1968 revolt. Perhaps I'll write about that another day.