The Unrewarded End

V.G. Kiernan

  • The Death of Uncle Joe by Alison Macleod
    Merlin, 269 pp, £9.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 85036 467 1
  • Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party by Francis Beckett
    Merlin, 253 pp, £9.95, August 1998, ISBN 0 85036 477 9

Studies of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its troubled history proliferate. An attraction for some must be that it is now safely dead and buried: there is no live bear to break out of its cage and retaliate. In 1995 Francis Beckett added his Enemy Within to the growing list of works. His researches were thorough; he had gone round meeting veterans of bygone days, nearly all of whom were happy to chew over their recollections with him. The book has now reappeared with an extra chapter covering the sad tale of the CP’s two successor-parties, or fragments, one completely unlike their progenitor, the other resembling it all too closely. Apart from this pair of ghosts, Beckett’s narrative runs from the hopeful founding conference of the CP (we thought of it simply as ‘the Party’) to its 43rd and final Congress in 1991. One of the strong points of Beckett’s book is its wealth of portraits of individuals, among them Harry Pollitt and Johnny Campbell; Willie Gallacher and Phil Piratin, two of the very few who found a way into Parliament; Palme Dutt the Swedish-Indian, more theologian than political thinker; and Bert Ramelson, a Ukrainian-Canadian, who became a very able and effective organiser of British industrial labour. The Party was never lacking in the internationalism that nearly all other English political movements conspicuously lacked. Beckett adds a gallery of photographs; Goethe’s friend Lavater, the pioneer of character-study through physiognomy, would have revelled in them.

The Party’s close but tangled relations with Moscow, to which Beckett gives much attention, bedevilled its development from the start. Its best season came in the Thirties, and the Forties after the Nazi invasion of Russia; this was also the time when it was least dependent on Soviet subsidies. Its isolated stand against Spanish Fascism, and Mosley at home, and the misery of unemployment, won it high respect. Beckett points also to the stimulus it gave to progressive writing and drama, and to the Left Book Club and Collet’s Bookshops.

It was in that promising, if turbulent time, with Party membership and the circulation of its newspaper, the Daily Worker, expanding rapidly, that Alison Macleod joined the Party. She was a member from 1939, and from 1944 to 1957 belonged to the Worker’s staff. She left both as a result of the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956-57. In recent years Macleod has been rereading her diary notes and gathering recollections from survivors among her contemporaries in order to write The Death of Uncle Joe, an account of the reactions of British Communists to the Soviet handling of postwar Eastern Europe. Among the people she spoke to, Monty Johnstone’s is a name that recurs, along with the philosopher Hyman (Hymie) Levy, Peter Fryer the journalist, and Brian Pearce, well known today as a translator of historical works from French and Russian. Levy she remembers as a very persuasive public speaker, whose Edinburgh accent ‘made everything sound reasonable’.

Her observation post at the office did not reveal much of the Party’s top leader, Harry Pollitt: for her, he was a distant and somewhat forbidding figure, whom she increasingly distrusted wherever Moscow was concerned. (Other pictures of him are far more attractive.) J.R. Campbell, the editor during her time, was by contrast very approachable and friendly, ‘a tough old Clydeside revolutionary’ and a war hero with a partly wooden foot and a special medal, who had educated himself into ‘a passionate interest in literature’. When the end came she was desperately sorry to be leaving him. Of the younger men coming to the fore, John Gollan, Pollitt’s successor – though the latter continued to dominate, she believes – was a likeable character; and George Matthews (still active today) seemed, as he did to everyone, a man full of ‘earnest honesty’.

The Party set up in 1920 was designed to be ready for immediate action. Its modes of speech might suggest that it was already on a war footing; this persisted long after any prospect of revolution had evaporated. ‘Every member has its section of the front to guard,’ and so on – language quite alien to British working-class habits of mind. It was a long time before Party ‘cells’ were turned into ‘branches’. Like most other Communist Parties in Europe, though not outside, the British CP was reduced to acting on the defensive. Its prime task, necessarily, was to do whatever it could to shield the USSR against a capitalist onslaught more dangerous that that of 1918.

Within a few months of joining the Party, Macleod had to face an abrupt reversal of thinking when war – if only a phoney war – broke out. Early in October, after cryptic hints were received from Moscow, whose own calculations seem to have been very confused, the resolution was taken to condemn the war for being imperialist rather than anti-Fascist. Only two of the leading circle in Britain resisted – Pollitt and Campbell – and then only briefly. In later days Campbell believed that had the Party not gone so wildly astray then, it would have been on a far stronger footing later on. If he had quit the Party in 1939 and joined Labour, Macleod argues, he would have been sure of a successful career, perhaps reaching the Cabinet.

From 1941 British Communists were part of the national war-effort: their energy and devotion made them useful, and discords were muffled. They suffered isolation of another sort, through the suppression of most of the fraternal parties by Fascist regimes before the war or Nazi occupation during it. Though small, the CPGB had at least the benefit of a continuous existence, but it was increasingly dependent, emotionally more than materially, on the USSR. Moscow in turn tended to make much of the CPGB because of its lack of friends elsewhere.

After the war the Daily Worker was owned not by the CP but by a co-operative of shareholders, but this never seems to have interfered with its politics. Campbell as editor did not have a free hand, or tongue, in any matter on which Moscow had pronounced, however, and it was increasingly suspected that he had to say things he did not really believe. Under the stresses of the Cold War, it was inevitable that doubts and tensions should begin to invade the office. Alison Macleod and her husband Jack felt them as keenly as any. As time went on the turmoil increased. It was not possible to work as hard and doggedly as they did at the Daily Worker without fanaticism creeping in; an element of judicious detachment was sometimes lacking. Fear of losing cherished illusions ‘was so powerful that we had lost the habit of frankness’. Individuals underwent ‘wild swings of mood’.

The Party structure was ill-equipped to cope. As in all the fraternal parties, it was based, supposedly, on ‘democratic centralism’, a title never clearly defined, or definable. The executive committee had a majority of members who were not full-time officials, but it met only once every two months, and had too little contact with the local branches, which on ordinary days were occupied with their own activities. Decisions were really taken by a political committee of office-holders, and not all even of its members, Macleod suspected, were always consulted. Branches, or members of them, were forbidden to discuss controversial issues with one another; though friends often ignored this rule, which was intended to prevent organised factions from being formed: in effect, it meant that there could be no coherent opposition to any mandate of the leadership, though there would be little willingness to work hard for an unpopular policy, and this could do more harm than open disagreement.

Branch activities were sometimes initiated from below. In 1948, when I reached Edinburgh, the national Historians’ Group had resolved to give its work a more practical turn by trying to form local groups, which would study local history and feed information into the publicity pipeline. I found a few individuals interested in the idea, among them a bricklayer who spent his spare time in the City Library, and had put together histories of the city and of Scotland. But we did not seem able to awaken much eagerness in Party speakers, or their hearers, and I heard of no better success elsewhere.

I found a nook for myself in the local section of the Britain-China Friendship Association, an organisation that arose out of the Korean War. There were one or two Party organisers involved, including Ben Bradley, whom I had known for a long time. He had done a spell of Party work in India, and been one of the defendants in the Meerut Conspiracy Trial. Our Edinburgh section was kept going by a nucleus of supporters, who, for one reason or another, wished to know more about China. My own first research work had been on Anglo-Chinese relations. There was a civil engineer who had become a squadron leader during the war, and was designing aerodromes in southern China when it ended. We acquired an ardently patriotic young Chinese woman and her English husband, who had retired from the diplomatic service in search of something more useful to do. A Quaker lady, who managed a boarding-house on model lines, was helpful partly because, being deaf, she always sat at the front and rebuked any speaker who was not loud enough for her to hear.

There were problems, four hundred miles from London, in getting speakers for the meetings we tried to keep going from year to year, and we welcomed anyone with something to tell us about the new China. One was an American traveller who had been allowed to wander about the country with his camera, taking wonderful photographs. Joseph Needham came twice. Dick Synge, a relative of the Irish playwright and an old Cambridge friend and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, came fresh from a tour of enquiry into Far Eastern food problems. I am fond of cabbage, and was glad to hear him say that he believed cabbage, very lightly fried, to have been what saved China from famine.

Delegations of Chinese professors and others visited us in the course of tours of Britain. One group, a woman among them, wanted to meet Scottish poets – the Burns monument was always a sine qua non for Chinese visitors – and the well-known folklorist and writer Hamish Henderson gathered half a dozen, for a lively evening’s discussion; one topic that came up was whether Lallans is a distinct language or not. We laid in a stock of beer for the occasion, on a tactful hint from Hamish that not all Scots poets earned enough to pay for the needful quantity.

Edinburgh then had a single Chinese restaurant, the Peking, close to the museum. It was run by an old fellow without much English, who was at least once taken into custody for opium-smoking on the premises. We held an annual dinner there; one of my duties was to negotiate terms with him, which was not always smooth work. Someone from the Chinese Embassy always came as guest, and made a short speech; we provided wine for him and his companions, but they never touched it. Of other speakers on these occasions, one of the best was Ritchie Calder, then in Edinburgh as Visiting Professor of International Relations. All this was brought to a sad end by the silly Sino-Indian War. The Chinese expected the BCFA to give them its wholehearted backing, which could not be given because our members were divided. The breach between China and Russia was another great upset.

Much Western propaganda at this time was directed against the treatment of Eastern European countries. At the outset we had watched the Soviet occupation and gazed at our maps in something of a triumphalist spirit, with expectations, far too sanguine, of a happy coming together of peoples liberated at last from the ancient curse of landlordism, and from memories of historic feuds kept alive for the benefit of their rulers. Admiration of Soviet planning bred a failure to understand that human beings cannot be so easily planned as steel production. Control, of some kind, of Eastern Europe was necessary to Russia’s security; without it these countries would speedily have been built up into outposts of aggressive Western power, as some had been by Hitler. Transformation at a stroke, however, and by police methods, could not be the right answer, and we were all slow to recognise it for what it was. Eastern Europe had been backward and misgoverned, and was badly in need of revolution, but this was revolution from above, with too little backing from below. Compelled by stages to open its eyes to the facts, the Daily Worker still felt bound to go on bowdlerising them.

In September 1949, following the break between Stalin and Yugoslavia, Laszlo Rajk and others were put on trial in Hungary on charges of plotting with Tito. They duly confessed, and were executed. There was another show-trial a few months later in Sofia, and a third, that of Rudolf Slansky, in November 1952 in Prague. We had all admired the Yugoslav resistance to Hitler, and Tito’s sudden excommunication seemed inexplicable. James Klugmann, who had served in Yugoslavia during the war, and came back talking enthusiastically of everything there, was – very tactlessly – commissioned by the Party to write a book explaining the volte-face. He could only make the shuffling best of a bad job. Someone told me of having seen him at headquarters, about to face the leadership over some question, looking distressingly nervous. I and a friend, who had spent some time in Prague on scientific work, went to see him privately – we had known him well at Cambridge – and tried to make him see that some of the tales told at the trials, as at the earlier ones in Russia, were quite incredible. They meant that men who had risked their lives for years as revolutionaries had been wearing traitors’ masks all the time, ready to be thrown off at a given signal. We could make no impression whatever.

In autumn 1952 the Soviet Party held its 19th Congress, the first since before the war; much was hoped for. John Gollan was there as fraternal delegate, and was not too much overawed to treat the Worker office to a jocular account of Stalin’s benevolent smile suddenly giving way to an explosion of wrath, at some trifling annoyance. In January 1953 Stalin was ill, and his whole panel of Jewish doctors under arrest. On 5 February he died. There was deep feeling in the British CP, and not there alone; many ordinary folk remembered him with gratitude as the man who led Russia to victory and saved Europe. In Edinburgh a crowded public meeting was held, in the old Odd-fellows’ Hall, and a speech of true eloquence was delivered by the Party leader in Scotland. Party speakers, Scots especially, still kept alive a tradition of oratory, perhaps because, more often than other politicians, they believed what they said.

As time went on, however, dissatisfaction spread beneath the Party’s surface at its failure to advance. On the industrial front it had some real influence, however this might be inflated by Party stalwarts – ‘The working class is swinging into action, with the Communist Party at its head.’ Politically at any rate the strategy of fighting Parliamentary elections and getting no votes was an obvious failure, and volunteers ready to work for this were dwindling – in Edinburgh on one occasion a ‘Black Circular’ had to be sent round to remind defaulters (I was one) of their duty. As a concession, a commission was set up to study whether the Party Constitution was in need of change. Discussion of this in Edinburgh was in a mild key, largely because our organiser Don Renton was ready to confess that he, too, was feeling frustrated. He was a veteran of the International Brigade and of a Franco prison (from which he was rescued, he willingly admitted, by unexpected diplomatic action on the part of the British). He could only be himself when there was a smell of action in the air.

In June 1953 a workers’ rising broke out in East Berlin. Agents provocateurs were blamed, and no doubt played some part, but Daily Worker reporters were worried. The Soviet 20th Congress in February 1956 rejected ‘the cult of the individual’ in favour of collective leadership; and Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ about Stalin. These developments provoked anxious debate in the Worker office – the keynote was Malcolm MacEwen’s call for abandonment of the old ‘chocolate-box picture’ of the USSR. Pollitt was criticised for continuing to talk about Stalin’s ‘mistakes’, instead of crimes. In October 1956 Moscow abandoned a strenuous effort to prevent Gomulka, only lately released from jail, from coming to office in Poland. In the same month the far more serious Hungarian crisis broke out, and led to Soviet intervention. Macleod listened on the radio to Nagy’s last speech. Of the 31 members on the editorial staff, 19 signed a protest against the way news from Hungary was being distorted. Another embarrassment for the leadership was the appearance of a dissident news-sheet, the Reasoner, crudely stencilled, as Macleod says, but inspired by E.P. Thompson and his fellow historian John Saville. (I was a camp follower.) Its third issue argued that if all the Communist Parties had banded together against intervention, it might have been averted. We wrote a joint letter to the New Statesman to make our view clear, and each received a threat of expulsion from Gollan. On top of this came a minority report from three members – one was Christopher Hill – of the commission of enquiry into democracy within the Party: they concluded that there was no democracy at all.

An agreement to hold an extraordinary congress served to postpone final decisions. It took place on Good Friday 1957. Arnold Kettle was put in the chair; he later confessed to friends that he was in a chaotic state of feeling. He made an awkward effort to cajole trade unionists by calling the dissidents ‘blacklegs’. Those in power managed to hold on, but the damage done by the controversy was irreparable. One of our most devoted Edinburgh members (he used to make up the annual deficit of branch funds out of his own pocket) tore up his Party Card as he left the building. We were a long way now from John Cornford in Spain with ‘nothing left but our Party Card’ to hold onto. One or two were expelled, among them Hymie Levy; Chimon Abramsky, the specialist in Jewish studies, resigned in protest at this. As Macleod observes, intellectuals ‘left the Party slowly, arguing to the last’, whereas workers voted with their feet. Taking her leave of Campbell, she warned him of her suspicion that some of the others would be glad to get rid of him. He was 62, and evidently suffering from a painfully divided mind; he kept his post for another two years.

In Edinburgh there were long, emotional debates, even tears; in the end the Party lost half its membership, including Don Renton, one of the very few fulltimers to leave. For a while he seemed in danger of going to pieces, and the Buchmanites made an effort to catch him for exhibition as a repentant sinner. He pulled himself together, took a keen interest in a documentary film about the Spanish Civil War made by the history department at the University, and died a respected Labour councillor, who specialised in housing. In his last illness he told me, with wry candour, that the fellow councillor who had shown him most sympathy and consideration was a Tory woman.

Of the other leavers, some said goodbye to politics; some drifted towards the Labour Party. Our squadron leader, who by now occupied an important professional position, served for years as chairman of his Labour Party branch. One or two turned Trotskyite, traditionally the cardinal sin. One turned his back on the USSR and took up with China instead; he came home from a stay in Canton an enthusiast for the Cultural Revolution, about which he and his wife wrote a book. He lived long enough to see ‘counter-revolution’, as he considered it, back in power in Beijing, and capitalism restored. I lingered inactively in the Party for three years, and then decided in future to be a one-man party, of liberal-Marxist principles.

For the CPGB, Hungary was the beginning of the end. An epilogue was the Czech crisis of 1968 (I happened to be in Prague during part of it). This time the Party was suddenly called on to lend its support to Warsaw Pact intervention, and the Czech Government set up by it. Once again the familiar arguments were bandied to and fro. The decision was to refuse. But it was too late to chart a successful new course. The Party was in decline; the USSR itself was losing its historical momentum.

There are pages in Alison Macleod’s book where she may seem too hard on both herself and her workmates, and the USSR. ‘The economic triumphs of socialism’ might be overstated, but they were not all fables, or the USSR would not have won the war. What on earth was the matter with us all, to make us unable to see the darker side of the Soviet state, she asks, and goes on to talk of the cruel treatment of the Volga Germans: ‘We knew about it, and did not care.’ We were ‘stooges’, deceived ‘because we wanted to be’. There is too much self-flagellation here. It does not go without saying that the Volga Germans were no real danger. The greatest war in history was raging; loss of the line of the Volga might well have meant defeat. Nazi armies were doing far worse things on Russian soil. Americans and Canadians were rounding up Japanese settlers into detention camps, less brutally but cruelly enough, and with no such excuse as the hard-pressed Russians could offer.

Once set up and with its outlook, workings and relations with Russia fixed, the Party could not adapt itself to changed conditions. That at bottom was what the matter was. Too often it was giving meaningless trumpet-calls to an imaginary audience, barn-storming in an empty barn. All the same, if only because there was nowhere else to go, the Party attracted numbers of remarkable men and women, some of them of a sort that it was surprising to find there. One ‘character’ was a middle-aged man always to be seen on the front row at the Edinburgh district’s monthly general meeting. He was always the first to speak in the discussion, and always began, in tones of great solemnity, by discovering in recent events ‘a lesson of profound significance for the working class of this country’. Later he turned to religion, and became a deacon. A very different and very charming person was Honor Arundel, ‘a Hampstead intellectual now living in Scotland’, as Macleod refers to her, who bewildered a small, mainly trade-union audience at a James Connolly anniversary meeting by reciting a long poem she had composed about him, in place of the customary speech.

Don Renton once remarked ruefully that there was only a hard core of permanent members, the rest came and went. I heard someone else say, with some hyperbole, that a high proportion of the Scottish working class must have passed through the Party at one time or another. Intellectuals may have stuck faster than most; for them, the simple fact of joining a left-wing party, chiefly of manual workers, might fix itself in the memory as something portentous, not to be hastily renounced. They would often come to feel that they had learned a great deal from the Party, or through it, especially perhaps a sense of the need to temper idealism with realism. J.B.S. Haldane wrote numerous popular science articles for the Daily Worker. Macleod, who got to know him, tells us that his departure from the fold was ‘reluctant, slow and agonised’, and afterwards he had to shake the dust of Europe off his feet and retire to India. There were other lessons for different people. She also quotes a working-class friend who remained thankful to the Party for having ‘educated him out of the British trade unionist’s traditional contempt for foreigners, blacks and women’.

The Party was trapped in world-historic problems for which there was no solution within reach – any more than for the Fifth Monarchy rebels of the Commonwealth whose reliance was on the Second Coming of Christ. But no better model of a genuine socialist movement, a search for social and economic sanity, has yet been found; in Britain even the search, begun so exuberantly a century ago, has been abandoned. Alison Macleod deserves thanks for the vivid light she has thrown on one part of its evertroubled annals. One of the heroic records from the history of journalism – a story incidentally of journalists working for half of the salaries due to them – can be read in her pages, even if it only led to a tarnished and unrewarded end.