By Robert Griffiths

Praxis Pres. 264 pages. £17. ISBN 978-1-899155-27-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I think the first thing I need to say is that this is not a  narrative history of the British Communist Party. It touches on many aspects of its activities over the years, but in the form of articles and essays, book reviews, obituaries, and other material previously published in a variety of left wing books, magazines and newspapers, among them the Morning Star and  Communist Review. Griffiths is General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the Morning Star is its daily paper. Having said that, I want to make it clear that I’m not intending any criticism of his book by suggesting that it doesn’t  offer a complete history of the Communist Party. It has its own values in terms of providing in book form a number of individual items that might otherwise have been overlooked among the acres of print that we encounter each day.

There are several long pieces that do give an outline of what the Party did following its founding in 1920. This is particularly true of “100 years of struggle for the working class and humanity”, a revised version of a pamphlet originally published in 2000. In it Griffiths, referring to the delegates who assembled at the Unity Convention in London in 1920, says, they “were united by deep revolutionary feelings, a profound hatred of capitalism and a deep disgust at the repeated betrayals of workers’ interests  by corrupt reformist leaders”.  One of the subjects that came up for debate, and continued to do so, was how far Party members should involve themselves with  the Labour Party. Griffiths points out that many delegates “supported the views of Lenin expressed at the Communist International (founded in 1919) and in his letter of greetings to the Unity Convention where he advocated ‘participation in Parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party on condition of free and independent  Communist activity’ “.  Other delegates thought that “parliamentary politics were a diversion and that the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) should concentrate on industrial struggle”. They may have had a point. Griffiths comments that when a Labour government won the 1924 General Election it was “In office but not in power”. 

I haven’t the space to account for all that the Party, and particularly individual Party members, were involved with throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Strikes by miners, railwaymen, and others, the  1926 General Strike, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and much more. It wasn’t all major activity, and in some ways it’s the minor works that might have boosted the Party’s reputation more than ideological matters. People could see communists in action as they fought to keep Mosley’s fascists off the streets, helped evicted families, opposed rent rises, were prepared to go to prison for their beliefs and in some cases left home and went to Spain to fight Franco and his German and Italian supporters.

The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact  of 1939 caused consternation in communist circles, and resulted in many members leaving the Party. Griffiths holds to what might be called the official line and asserts that Stalin knew that war was coming and had tried to get Britain and France to agree to a combined front against Hitler. When that failed he negotiated with Germany as a means of buying time for a build-uip of his military and other resources. Not every historian would agree with Griffiths.

And in Britain communists were not popular when, in obedience to the line laid down by the Comintern, the Party opposed the war. The instruction was that, this “was an imperialist and unjust war for which the bourgeoisie of all the belligerent states should bear equal responsibility. In no country can the working class or the Communist Party support the war”. Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the British party, refused to go along with the Comintern policy and was replaced by someone who would support it.  The line changed in 1941 when Germany invaded Russia  and it once again became acceptable to be a communist and openly proclaim it. After all, the Party now told workers that it was unpatriotic to go on strike and they should work harder to help the war effort. Membership rose during the war years as “Uncle Joe” and  the Russian army were celebrated in films, books, and on the radio.

It didn’t last. The end of hostilities in 1945 soon saw the onset of the Cold War as communist intentions in Eastern Europe became obvious. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other countries came under Soviet control, reports of communist spies stealing atomic secrets were in the news, the Berlin airlift added  to the tension, and in 1950 the Korean War started, pitching communist North Korea supported by China against a United Nations force which included British soldiers.  Feelings ran high. I recall an old communist I knew in my home town telling me how he was pulled off his soapbox and pursued by a gang of angry sailors from a ship in the local docks who didn’t like what he said about what was happening in Korea.

Griffiths works hard to demonstrate that communists remained active in the 1950s and beyond, but there’s no denying that they were less influential than they had been. Gone were the days when Willie Gallacher and Phil Piratin could be elected to Parliament and communists became local councillors. Membership slumped in the 1950s fo[lowing the Kruschev revelations about Stalin’s crimes and the Russian invasion of Hungary and the bitter fighting that took place in and around Budapest. I was in the British Army in Germany in 1956 and one night on guard duty I was fiddling around with a high-powered short-wave radio in the guardroom and picked up a faint cry for help from somewhere in Hungary. It was obvious that the West wasn’t prepared to risk a Third World War by aiding the Hungarians in any way. Around the same time I did wonder how we could justify our conspiring with the French and Israelis to invade Egypt and seize control of the Suez Canal.

Interspersed with the lengthy pieces about Party policies and practices are a number of short items about individual communists who, though probably not well-known in a wider context, devoted much of their time and energy to local matters. One or two might be remembered because they did attract some attention from a largely hostile press. Derek Robinson – “Red Robbo” as the right-wing daily papers labelled him – is one example. He was a union activist at the British Leyland plant at Longbridge and was sacked, according to Griffiths, for “putting forward an alternative to a misnamed ‘Rescue Plan’ that would sink 25,000 jobs at the British Leyland factory”. I have some memories of the reports in the press about Robinson’s  activities, but  I can’t comment too closely on the facts surrounding his dismissal, though there’s little doubt that he was a marked man as far as the employers were concerned. Griffiths refers to him leading strikers out “Not once but reputedly 523 times”.  As a well-known communist he was also marked for attention by the  police and the security services.

Griffiths pays tribute to some of the women who were active in communist circles. Thora Silverthorne was a nurse with the International Brigades in Spain and was later involved in union organising. Dora Cox edited the womens’ page of the National Minority Movement’s publication The Worker in the 1930s. MI5 described her as “one of the more important members of the CPGB” and “worth a warrant”. She worked in a woollen mill in Burnley, organising and spreading the word about communism, and was involved with Wal Hannington and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. She continued her radical involvements almost to the time of her death in 2000. Annie Powell was associated with “Red Rhondda” . She trained as a teacher, and when she began her career in Trealaw was shocked by what she saw: “The poverty of the people and of the children was something that hit me really hard”.  She campaigned as a communist and won a seat as a councillor on Rhondda Borough Council in the late-1940s. I’m giving only a brief account of her activities and Griffiths supplies many more details. But it’s worth noting that, “After a spell as Deputy Mayor, her Labour colleagues elevated  Annie to the mayorship in May 1979, shortly after the election of Margaret  Thatcher as Tory prime minister”.

The CPGB  split in the early 1980s and some of Griffiths’ writings look at aspects of why the various factions feuded and what the result was.  I’ll let him tell the story : “A faction of self-styled ‘revolutionary democrats’ or ‘Gramscians’  - later more widely referred to as ‘Eurocommunists’ – believed that the Party and formulations in its programme exhibited tendencies to ‘class reductionism’ and ‘economism’ : too much time and resources were allegedly devoted to the economic aspects of the class struggle.  As a consequence, the CPGB was neglecting the social, cultural and ideological fronts, neglecting vital issues and social forces that could not simply be analysed in terms of ‘class’ “.

Griffiths obviously wasn’t in agreement with them, and his review of Geoff Andrews’ Endgames and New Times : The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, which he notes tends to favour the “Gramscians” (after Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist)  is bitingly dismissive. Some of this might be of interest only to Party members and left-wing academic historians. Suffice to say that the “Gramscians”  largely disappeared from the scene, along with their journal, Marxism Today, the Party slightly re-named itself as the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and,  I’m glad to say, retained control of the Morning Star. As a non-communist, but a regular reader of the paper, I welcome its focus on trade union matters, its book reviews, and its coverage of art, music and theatre.

There is much more in The Gleam of Socialism than I’ve been able to deal with. Articles about  Arthur Horner, the one-time president of the South Wales Miners Federation (the “Fed”  as it was known in its hey-day), and Dai  Dan Evans, evoke another age that might seem strange to many younger readers. Reading about such people made me recall a couple of comments made years ago by people I encountered in my working life. One was by a man who didn’t care for the principles of communism but said he did admire individual communists for their dedication to trying to improve working conditions and the lives of people in their communities. The other was during a conversation with an older colleague who told me he had belonged to the Young Communist League and had heard Harry Pollitt speak at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. He’d later drifted away from communism, but said that, on a local level, he’d known some “bloody  good people” in the Party.    

The Gleam of Socialism is informative from a committed point of view, has a useful bibliography, some photographs, and both subject and name indexes.