Eric Hobsbawm

  • The Lost World of British Communism by Raphael Samuel
    Verso, 244 pp, £19.99, November 2006, ISBN 1 84467 103 8
  • Communists and British Society 1920-91 by Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn
    Rivers Oram, 356 pp, £16.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 1 85489 145 7
  • Bolshevism and the British Left, Part One: Labour Legends and Russian Gold by Kevin Morgan
    Lawrence and Wishart, 320 pp, £18.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 905007 25 7

Lenin’s ‘vanguard party’ of Marxist cadres, disciplined and ideally full-time, his ‘professional revolutionaries’, was the most formidable political invention of the 20th century. Its impact on the history of that century was extraordinary. Some thirty years after Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, parties of this type ruled over one third of the world’s population. By dint of following the Leninist model, small groups were able to punch far above their weight, while in the right historical circumstances, their structure afforded them enormous potential for expansion and, indeed, state-building. Even in unfavourable conditions, such as those that prevailed in Britain, their impact was out of proportion to their size.

How modest the numbers were is often forgotten. When Tsarism fell in 1917 Bolshevik membership in Russia was estimated at ten thousand, of whom three thousand were in the capital. (In 1914 the St Petersburg membership had been barely five hundred.) In November 1940, less than four years before it took power in Belgrade, the Yugoslav Communist Party had six thousand members; at its lowest point, in 1932, it had counted barely two hundred. How strong the Vietnam Communist Party was when it began to consider an insurrection for independence in 1941 is anyone’s guess, but even after the proclamation of its Democratic Republic in 1945 it had no more than twenty thousand members.

Who were they, the members of such parties? What, if anything, distinguished them from those who did not join? How different were their expectations and attitudes? Until the fall of the Berlin Wall these questions were asked and answered chiefly by impassioned anti-Communists, many of them breast-beating former devotees of the God That Failed. With some notable exceptions – Annie Kriegel was one – they wrote works of condemnation, warning and fear rather than understanding and analysis, sometimes based on theories about deviancy and totalitarian personality that are best forgotten. Even for the generation, largely of long-time loyal Communists, who left the parties in and after 1956 and remained firmly on the political left, rejecting Stalinism was more urgent than reflecting on their unique political experience. In the most readable of the retrospects, Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism, which is full of melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past, Communism is seen as ‘a doomed, flawed but noble faith’. But Samuel did not write his now reissued book until the 1980s, and then as an unhappy commentary on the disintegration of the Party he had left behind thirty years earlier.

In fact, the disintegration of the movement has made possible the current flood of memoir, autobiography and prosopographical research. It is largely the work of former or surviving Party members in the non-Communist world, a disproportionately articulate sample of humanity, on the basis of the gigantic accumulation of biographical source material in the now accessible Russian CP and, to a lesser extent, Western intelligence archives. Since they are about a movement which has, for practical purposes, ceased to exist in its traditional form, at least in Europe, they are mostly free from the temptations of agitprop and self-justifying polemic, though not of the acid of academic controversy. They probably constitute the rare phenomenon of an obituary literature written from the grave.

British studies in this field are particularly well developed, thanks to the numerous published volumes of British Communist biography and autobiography, to exceptionally comprehensive research and to the interest of established works of reference, such as the DNB and the invaluable Dictionary of Labour Biography. The Lost World of British Communism is the most attractive of the books on life and memory, a (characteristically uncompleted) memorial to its author’s questioning and passionate intellect. Communists and British Society 1920-91, dedicated to the memory of Samuel, is the most ambitious and informative. It is based on Kevin Morgan’s extensive Manchester project on British Communist biography, with its data on 4500 individuals, and on the work of an enthusiastic but by no means always unanimous group of researchers who have been active in this field in recent years. Morgan, who seems to have been single-handedly responsible for most of the 175 interviews that form the core of the book, covers some of the same ground, mainly for the 1920s, in his own erudite and revisionist Labour Legends and Russian Gold (the first of a three-volume study to be entitled Bolshevism and the British Left), which may also be read with profit by those interested in current debates about the funding of the Labour Party.

In some respects the British CP, whose claim to historic significance is modest, was similar to other CPs. Its members were overwhelmingly drawn from the pre-existing cultural milieus of the left, liberal, labour, socialist or (in the case of immigrant Eastern Jews or Irish) from those generally sympathetic to rebels. (The Italian Communist leadership of the generation of 1943-45, which came to the CP from entirely non-political or even conformist backgrounds through active resistance to the German occupation and Mussolini’s Social Republic, is exceptional: it has been described with wonderful skill in Rossana Rossanda’s recent autobiography La ragazza del secolo scorso.) Like other parties, the British CP in its heyday was disproportionately young. Like them, it lived long enough for the young it recruited at successive historical moments – and with different motivations – to grow older, marry and engender a second generation of Party members, or more likely post-Party members. As a party of full-time activists, though passionately committed to gender equality, it provided far less scope for women than the mass social-democratic parties – this was generally true of Communist parties – and had a smaller membership among women than they did. Like other working-class parties, it never succeeded in finding a stable balance between local and workplace activism. Like others, it attracted passionate readers and self-educators and, being Marxist, intellectuals.

In other respects it was notably different. Though constantly suspect to the authorities, it was never illegal. Britain (as distinct from Ireland) lacked any living experience or tradition of revolution or armed civil conflict. Its Communism arose not as a breakaway from an established mass social-democratic party but, as it were, side by side with a rapidly growing Labour Party radicalised by world war and the break with Liberalism, and in the process of transforming itself from a federal entity into a party with mass membership. Labour was consequently to remain the only party on the left with a national electoral presence. As Morgan’s perceptive books demonstrate, this generated a political space in which, for much of the interwar period, ‘the broader labour movement largely accommodated [Communist] and other left-wing views, and provided what many regarded as a more congenial and effective platform for them.’

Labour leaders as well as Communists expressed enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and its achievements: as late as 1937, Attlee, who didn’t doubt that the USSR was part of the socialist family though its practices were unsuited to Britain, was the only leader of a major social-democratic party associated with Moscow’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union. In practice, Communists, especially in the workplace, were seen not as rivals but as part of the labour community, even when Labour, anticipating the subsequent Cold War division, had firmly drawn the line between the lefts of ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’. British Communism was thus deeply enmeshed with the long-established labour and socialist movement of the only country in which a massively class-conscious industrial working class formed a majority of the population. As Morgan’s team shows, working-class British Communist autobiographies contain hardly any of the narratives of sudden conversion so common among workers in the first generation of European Marxist social democracy. Overwhelmingly they see Communism issuing out of continuity. CP historians saw themselves both as innovators and as heirs of their radical-liberal and Fabian predecessors. Contrary to the ‘Internationale’, British Communism had no inclination to ‘sweep away the past’: ‘du passé faisons table rase’ was not part of its agenda.

Consequently, the experience of Communist community culture, Raphael Samuel’s ‘lost world’, is a relatively unimportant part of Communism in British society, however prominent it is in the memory-based literature. The CPGB was never in a position to establish a parallel class culture as the mass social-democratic parties in Austria or Germany had done, or as the Italian CP did after 1945, not even on a local basis, as the old Independent Labour Party did in ‘Red Clydeside’ with its 15 Socialist Sunday Schools; the only possible exceptions were anomalous minority communities such as the Jewish East End. The influence of its few ‘Little Moscows’ is correctly described by Morgan, Cohen and Flinn as negligible. The absence of strong local communities politically identified with a class party, built round family as well as occupational issues and expressed in the solid votes of, for example, the Paris ‘red belt’ municipality or the Labour valleys of Glamorgan, was to prove an insurmountable handicap for British Communism. It rarely tried for the mass membership that diluted the essence of the ‘cadre party’, or maintained it more than momentarily when it did.

If it represented any community culture, it was the occupational culture of the (male) industrial worker. Though in its hardline phases Moscow insisted on widespread candidacies in general elections, the British comrades knew perfectly well that the politics of voting, even local voting, belonged to Labour. (It was one of the few issues on which loyalists publicly disagreed with the Party.) In industrial working-class communities in which the Party established a presence, it functioned, until after World War Two, as a remarkably effective selector and educator of a generally small cadre of recognised and respected militants and leaders, mainly in the workplace, in ‘dense interconnections between Communism and the broader Labour movement’. As late as the 1960s this could produce, as in Sheffield, a Labour MP (Martin Flannery) married to a Communist wife, and a young engineer (Richard Caborn) who, doubtless under the patronage of his CP father and predecessor, began as a shop-stewards’ convenor at Firth Brown Tools at the age of 24, then modulated into a Kinnockite MP and, since 1997, government minister. South Wales, where everything turned on the pit lodge and the Miners’ Federation (‘The Fed’), and Sheffield, where everything turned on the AEU District with its 52 branches, were ideally suited to this kind of relationship between a handful of leaders – the CP had barely twenty members among the two thousand employees of Firth Brown – and the community. Originating in the old industrial areas, the pattern spread to the dynamic new industrial centres in the Midlands, London and the South through the migration of the skilled, the young, and not least, the victimised and therefore mobile militants. Even there, as Communists and British Society argues, the British Party remained, unlike other CPs, more complementary to Labour than competitive with it.

The relatively small number of intellectuals who joined the CP in its heyday, increasingly as students, were not linked in the same way with the rest of the left of centre educated strata; there was no politico-cultural class connection, if only because so many of them were a social novelty: the first university generation in families – even middle-class families – that had never expected formal higher education. Prosopography confirms the impression that the traditional Oxbridge classes did not dominate. The major exception, still overwhelmingly outside the academy, were Samuel’s post-1880 immigrant Jewish communities, among whom revolutionary intellectuals had long been as much part of the milieu as salt-beef sandwiches. Most of the intellectuals were attracted to the Party in the crisis-torn and anti-Fascist 1930s by a theory that furnished both explanation and directions for action, and by the sheer energy and effectiveness of the Leninists. Rejection of what the USSR had become under Stalin moved most of them to leave the CP in 1956-57; so far as I am aware, only one, Alfred Sherman, became an active Conservative. But for the hysterical anti-Communism of the early 1950s more might have left earlier. In the era of office work, service industries and all-encompassing media, educated non-manual workers were to form a larger component of the Party and the main supporters of its aggiornamento: through the monthly Marxism Today they gave the CP a surprisingly prominent political presence on its deathbed in the 1980s.

Until the explosion of higher education and deindustrialisation – that is to say, in their heyday, so well recalled by Samuel – the British Communists remained essentially working class, engaged for the most part in metalworking, mining, construction and transport, with a seasoning of teachers and upwardly mobile non-manual workers and housewives. They were disproportionately common in London, Scotland and among immigrant Jews. They functioned as a recruitment agency and a school of leadership for the trade unions, the nursery of a large number of its subsequent national leaders, and established a significant presence on the cultural and intellectual scene. After the collapse of the Independent Labour Party and until 1956, the CP represented the only effective organisation of the radical left, for practical purposes the only available source of Marxism; and, thanks to Soviet subsidies, it employed a large number of poorly paid functionaries. But were they, or their Party, a body of revolutionaries?

The question throws light on the major problem of European Communism for most of its history: namely, that of parties designed for revolution in countries that provided no scope for it. Communists were puzzled by this and developed endless theories to explain the sluggishness of the British workers, though Lenin himself and the Comintern in its day (1919-43) were realistic enough not to expect too much from these anomalous islands. Except around the period of the General Strike of 1926, the important Comintern agents and instructors visited Britain only sporadically, and British Communists had no major role in the Comintern’s hierarchy or among its activists. Internationally, Britain’s CP was never more than politically marginal; the Comintern leadership kept an eye on the UK – it was still, after all, a major power and had a channel to the ‘colonial’ Communists, notably in India – but nothing more. Nevertheless, the British failure was only an extreme example of the failure of the other countries of industrial capitalism to follow the path of the October Revolution. With some exceptions – Weimar Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, perhaps Finland – their Communist parties remained small and marginal. It was all the more galling, since Leninist orthodoxy insisted that the revolution had been and must be proletarian, made and led by workers.

Hence the constant dissatisfaction of the international leadership with the men, and the much smaller number of women, who actually joined and only too often left Communist parties, and its constant efforts to turn them into prototypical Bolsheviks. Since almost all the members of the parties had been in the legal labour and socialist or anarcho-syndicalist movements before 1917, they were ideologically unsound by Leninist standards – even those who thought themselves revolutionaries – and structurally unused to the requirements of the vanguard party. Moreover, for a movement that insisted on the primacy of the bare-chested muscle-flexing proletarian, they were too apt to come from the wrong class or stratum: new or old intellectuals, teachers, clerks or, at best, skilled craftsmen, notably in the engineering and metal industries, the traditional heart of organised labour, the suspect ‘aristocracy of labour’.

In the less industrialised countries concessions had to be made. As in other Asian CPs, the leaders of the Vietnamese party were overwhelmingly intellectuals (74 per cent in 1953), and even in Italy most of the core of leaders, the capi storici, belonged to the tiny minority of those with at least secondary education. (In well-schooled Weimar Germany in 1929, by contrast, 94.6 per cent of Communist Party members had only a primary school record.) In industrial countries proletarian leaders were easier to find until the 1960s; and, in any case, suspicion of non-workers was part of the class consciousness of labour movements. No German, French or British manual union would have accepted a sprig of the academic upper bourgeoisie like Bruno Trentin as general secretary of a metalworkers’ federation and later the Italian TUC. The Comintern’s ‘bolshevisation’ of Communist parties, which set in after Lenin’s death, was designed both to proletarianise their leadership, with special attention to the promotion of the young, untainted by pre-1914 traditions; and to transform it into an iron elite of disciplined Leninist cadres, devoted to world revolution and its directorate in the Soviet Union, selected and trained for leadership. This was to be achieved, among other ways, by systematic study and suitable political education in ‘party schools’, up to degree-course attendance, in the years between 1926 and 1938, at the Lenin School in Moscow, which was accessible, in principle, only to bona fide workers.

This did little to widen the appeal of Communism, for ‘bolshevisation’ coincided with a great slump in international Communist membership at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, everywhere except in Germany. It created a cadre of a few thousand long-lasting full-time Party functionaries and activists: hard, efficient, unconditionally loyal to Moscow, and under increasingly close central control from it. Though in Britain, Lenin School graduates did not take over the top posts in the Party, in France and other countries this corps of bolshevised cadres led Communist parties and electorates of varying size that were, until the 1970s, nevertheless astonishingly immune to the traditional fissility of the political left. Unlike Trotskyites and Maoists, Muscovite Communists generated no rival sects. Dissidents simply dropped out, like the many recruits who could not live up to the heavy demands of a party geared to wholehearted activism; this always gave Communist parties an unusually high membership turnover. In Britain, as elsewhere, they were mobilised for the Spanish Civil War. They would have gone underground if they had had to, as they did on the Continent during World War Two, and organised armed resistance to the German occupation, with the bulk of dedicated Party members taught to expect – and to be ready to face – the ‘last fight’ of the ‘Internationale’. And yet even the most indisputable record of armed wartime resistance and insurrection did not bring the Italian and French Communist Parties closer to the seizure of power for which they had been destined.

Without doubt those who joined Communist parties wanted the ‘revolutionary transformation of society’ that was desired, even in 1979, by 46 per cent of French Communists (as against 17 per cent of the French electorate as a whole). The October Revolution and its child, the Soviet Union, represented both the possibility of such a world revolution and its proclaimed achievement inside the one country that had proved socialism to be more than an aspiration. The Lost World vividly describes the way Communists felt about it. The October Revolution represented an ideal of what international emancipation and socialism were to be: and it, rather than the reality of the USSR, represented what Communists stood for, though in Britain at least the belief that the USSR was in some sense ‘a workers’ state’ was held even by non-Communist trade-union and Labour leaders until World War Two; organised trips through the Potemkin villages that concealed the crude realities of Soviet existence created an image of a desirable life that was quite widely accepted by non-Party labour movement activists. In the end, and notably among working-class Communists, zealous pro-Sovietism may have represented no more than the regimental spirit of old political soldiers, the nostalgia for the Leninist Party they had joined in their youth, strong in its collectivity, unity, discipline, training and fighting spirit and now in dissolution. It is impossible to believe that it was a genuine enthusiasm for Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968 that motivated the refusal of the ‘tankies’, the largely trade-unionist cadres, to accept the Party leadership’s condemnation of the Soviet invasion. This initiated the split that eventually put an end to the CPGB. But, misguided or not, and however genuine the revolutionary aspirations of Communists, what could they do in non-revolutionary situations?

That is why the most interesting parts of the literature of historical retrospect deal with the era of postwar transformation, decline and fall. What undermined the Communist Party in Britain after the war was not as yet de-industrialisation but the rise of secondary employment and formal education, both forces de-proletarianising what had been an essentially working-class body. In the 1950s, Harry Pollitt could still veto the appointment of the middle-class former student George Matthews as his successor and insist on the worker John Gollan. Some twenty years later the industrial organisers of the Party were a Canadian lawyer and the son of an academic, and no adequately qualified worker could be found to take up the post of district secretary for the Party’s most industrial district. The bright young people from labour families who had gained their general political education as apprentices in the unionised shops of the big engineering works of Clydeside and the North now came into politics as students working for a degree. After 1956 even the young workshop lions were more likely to be inspired by dissident Marxists than by Moscow orthodoxy: the average Communist Party shop steward in the 1960s was past his (and hardly ever her) forties. Not that this was much of an immediate handicap. On the contrary, working-class recruiting more than recovered the losses of 1956, and after thirty years of what amounted to a CP monopoly in the formation of union activists, Party influence on the industrial scene was never greater than in the 1970s, or the unions stronger and more militant. Yet they had reason to feel that the Party itself was moving out of their lives.

In fact, as Communists and British Society shows well, given the lack of any basic national political perspective, the natural tendency was for comrades to concentrate on their special field of action – ‘industrial work’, schools, university work, theatre, media or whatever – which, as time went on, became both more autonomous and less controllable from the centre. On the one hand, this flexibility gave better results than rigid Leninist central command both in the workshop and at the desk, but at the potential cost of effacing the Party’s purpose and undermining that disciplined unity that was its greatest asset. It is characteristic that in 1956 the hitherto notoriously loyal CP Historians’ Group became the core of Party dissidence and that the CP lost one third of the staff of the Daily Worker. Like historians, journalists ‘were inevitably forced to confront the situation not only as private persons and Communist militants but in their professional capacity’, as Communists and British Society reports. As for the Communists in the workshops, what began, in Nina Fishman’s words, as ‘revolutionary pragmatism’ in the 1930s, and by the late 1970s had become the CP’s strikingly successful trade-union policy, could be seen, including by other Communists, as an obstacle even to the modest ambitions of ‘Labour’s Forward March’. In fact, as the Labour Party almost foundered, the CP was to go under in the 1980s, defeated by an unreconstructed industrial wing that refused to follow a reforming Party leadership (described by a disapproving Samuel as ‘Right Wing Communism’) while proclaiming its loyalty to the image of the Leninist Party and the USSR.

Why has so powerful a socio-political invention as the classical Leninist Party had so relatively brief a career? The extraordinary success of such parties coincided with the first half, the Age of Catastrophe, of the ‘short’ 20th century, an era of world wars, imperial breakdowns, revolutions and wars for national and social liberation, unsuited to the institutions of democratic mass politics in several of the few countries where they operated. After 1949 and the last of their successful revolutions (the Chinese), opposition Communist parties lived on diminishing capital. South Africa was to be their only major achievement. Their main inspiration, an international movement, disappeared with the Chinese-Soviet split. Since the 1960s their chosen constituency as the agents of social transformation, the industrial working class, has been eroding and fragmenting. They were slow to recognise postwar social changes.

The restoration of a flourishing and socially quiescent capitalist world and the international stabilisation of the Cold War left them stranded: where revolutionary transfers of power involving them might have been possible, they were suppressed by the West, as in Chile. In Italy, as we now know for certain, the West also imposed a veto on any effective participation in democratic government by Communists. The West was too nervous: where Communist parties have been in government in democratic states, they have not been in a position to dominate. They might, like the Italian CP, try to convert themselves into social-democratic parties – not a promising model for the 21st century. If they did not succeed, they had nowhere to go except downhill.

The classical non-regime Communist party is today almost extinct as a political force in Europe and the Americas, though not in parts of India. There is no real prospect of its revival. Nor, except possibly in Nepal, have dissident Marxist versions replaced it. Few if any of the current non-Communist revolutionary or insurrectionary bodies, now mostly ethnic or confessional, look to the Leninist model as they once did. On the other hand, Communist parties survive as state organisations shorn of the old commitment to a centrally state-planned socialism, but, as in China and Vietnam, as extremely effective sponsors of what might be called controlled market economies. Since China is today seen as the exemplar of economic success and the 21st century is likely to provide ample scope for controlled and regulated economies, the post-Communist-state party is not about to fade away. What Lenin would think of it is another question.