Tribune, 14 December 1990
The Communist Party of Great Britain decided not to disband last week. But, writes Paul Anderson, it seems merely to have postponed its collapse
The tiny Communist Party of Great Britain last weekend looked death in the face – and then averted its gaze.
A vast majority of the 300 delegates at its 42nd Congress at TUC Congress House in London rejected a proposal, put forward by Marxism Today supporters, to dissolve the 70-year-old party into a loose political association. A rather smaller majority rejected calls for “renewal” of the party on Leninist lines.
Instead, the CP will continue, putting a change of name and rules to next year’s congress and encouraging the eventual emergence of a “new political formation”. But it is difficult to see how this fudge, backed by the party’s executive committee, can possibly stem the CP’s decline. It now claims 6,000 members (down from 30,000 in the sixties), some not paying their dues, most of them inactive and many of them retired.
More important, the formal debate and informal discussion at the 42nd Congress showed clearly that the few comrades who remain are terminally disillusioned, with no coherent common political project. The party has survived merely because Britain’s communists are afraid of life without it.
Saturday morning’s debate was supposed to discuss the general political situation in which the CP now finds itself, with an executive committee document based on Marxism Today‘s analysis of “New Times” as its focus.
Instead, after an opening speech from the party’s general secretary, Nina Temple, in which she declared that “1990 has seen the Bolshevik era end in disaster”, the debate concentrated on the legacy of 1917.
Delegates heard a string of stinging denunciations of the whole Leninist tradition. One speaker told the congress: “The crimes committed in the name of communism can never be explained away.” Another, attacking democratic centralist party organisation, announced blithely that “Leninism helped to grease the skids for Stalinism”.
Such sweeping dismissals of party tradition were too much for some older delegates, who treated the congress to diatribes on the unchanging nature of imperialism, but resistance was weak. No one was prepared explicitly to defend the “actually existing socialism” that once inspired the CP, and attempts to prevent the party from disowning its past were voted down.
That left the afternoon’s session to determine the way forward, but here proceedings almost ground to a halt. Everyone agreed that the CP was in crisis, and nearly everyone backed a pluralist politics of “broad progressive alliances”, but no two speakers seemed to concur on what should happen next.
One man, supporting the executive commitee’s proposal that the party be kept going for the time being, pinned his hopes on a Labour defeat at the next election, which would lead to a “fundamental review of left politics” in which Greens and Liberal Democrats would play a key role. Another, also backing temporary continuation, said that the CP could help Labour win.
Yet another thought that a “renewed” CP, the option favoured by (mainly London-based) Leninist hardliners, should throw in its lot with the Socialist Movement and the Labour hard left. A woman advocate of dissolving the party into a political association said that political parties were a thing of the past; a male colleague saw the political association as a means of providing strategic thinking for Labour.
In the end on Sunday the congress supported the executive fudge by a large majority, but there was little enthusiasm among delegates for their own decision. Many among the Marxism Today faction who favoured dissolution voted for the compromise only to defeat the hardline Leninist faction; many who didn’t want change, particularly from the Scottish party, backed the compromise only to defeat the liquidationists.
Far from resolving the crisis, the outcome of the congress ensures that the argument over the CP’s future will continue for another year, and many members, particularly those who believe that the party should call it a day, have simply had enough. That means that further resignations are on the cards, which in turn means that the influence of the Leninist hard-line block, which increased its representation on the executive in elections on Sunday, will grow still further.
As the CP’s death agonies continue, last weekend will almost certainly look like a missed opportunity for painless suicide.