Goodbye to the Comintern

Martin Kettle

  • About Turn. The Communist Party and the Outbreak of the Second World War: The Verbatim Record of the Central Committee Meetings 1939 edited by Francis King and George Matthews
    Lawrence and Wishart, 318 pp, £34.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 85315 726 X

In December 1989, as Nicolae Ceausescu was led out from the courtroom in Tirgoviste to his summary execution, he began to hum the opening bars of the ‘Internationale’. More than four decades earlier, Primo Levi recalled that as the Red Army speechlessly liberated the fortunate few from Auschwitz, a fellow survivor, a German named Thylle, sat on his bunk and sang the ‘Internationale’ too: ‘in a low stridulous voice, grotesque and solemn at the same time’.

When Ceausescu of the Swiss bank accounts sings, we feel sick. When Thylle, ten long years in the Lager, sings, we weep. It is a reminder that the Communist tradition has left its imprint deep in the souls of many different people from many different countries, and that those who identify with it are neither only oppressors nor only oppressed. They are not all wicked nor all noble, but a mixture of these and every other quality. This is the only spirit in which the history of the Communist movement can properly be understood, particularly in its pre-Cold War heyday.

About Turn is a tough book to read, even for those of us who maintain a perverse fascination with the affairs of the British Communist Party (and what a surprisingly large number of us there are – a further sign of Communism’s many-sided legacy). It is a verbatim account of the meetings of the CP’s Central Committee in September 1939, and much of it is a jungle of cliché and jargon. A 1984 publication from Lawrence and Wishart, 1939: The Communist Party and the War, edited by John Attfield and Stephen Williams, complements and illuminates the new volume. This is the transcript of a conference held in 1979, in which several Communists of the 1939 generation explained what they thought was going on in their minds at the time.

Few episodes in the history of British Communism are more important than the decision of the Communist Party of Great Britain to alter its view of the Second World War. It was a crucial moment for the credibility of the Party. Ten years afterwards, one of the most sympathetic of the Central Committee’s 1939 protagonists, J.R. Campbell, told a friend: ‘We should have supported the war the whole time. It would have made our Party and we would have had at least fifty Communist MPs if we had.’ When Poland was invaded on 1 September, and before the expiry of the British Government’s ultimatum to Hitler, the Communist Party supported the war. War, they agreed unanimously at a Central Committee meeting on 2 September, would be a continuation of the fight against Fascism. Two days later, after war was declared, the Daily Worker announced: ‘The war is here. It is a war that CAN and MUST be won.’ A few days later, an editorial appeared under the headline: ‘To betray Poland is to betray Britain.’ On 14 September the Party published a pamphlet by general secretary Harry Pollitt entitled ‘How to Win the War’. It declared: ‘To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beast rides roughshod over Europe, would be the betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism.’

That same day, however, 14 September, Moscow Radio made a broadcast. It included the sentence: ‘There is no doubt in the minds of the Soviet people that this war is an imperialist and predatory war for a new redivision of the world, a robber war kindled from all sides by the two imperialist groups of powers.’ A telegram containing the details of the broadcast arrived at the Daily Worker and was abruptly suppressed by Pollitt.

The problem itself could not be so easily disposed of. Press reports of a change of Soviet line began to appear. On 24 September, the Central Committee met again, for what it had intended as a preparatory meeting for an emergency party conference endorsing the pro-war stand. Now, though, it was faced with a direct conflict between its own position and the messages emanating from Moscow. The meeting was paralysed by the absence of an authoritative statement of Moscow’s position. ‘I know what I want,’ Pollitt explained to them in a speech advocating a continuation of the pro-war stance. But, he admitted, ‘we are all like a lot of rabbits in front of a snake, wondering whether we are on the right line or the wrong line.’

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