New Statesman & Society, 4 February 1994

Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey report on what historians of the British Communist Party are finding in the newly opened archives in the former Soviet Union

On 23 June 1941, the day after Hitler’s Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union, George Orwell wrote in his diary:

“At present the British Communists have issued some kind of manifesto calling for a ‘People’s Government’ etc, etc. They will change their tune as soon as the hand-out from Moscow comes. If the Russians are really resisting, it is not in their interest to have a weak government in Britain, or subversive influences at work here. The Communists will no doubt be super-patriotic within ten days . . .”

Orwell was precisely right. The very next day, the executive committee of the Communist International, which controlled all the world’s communist parties, and which in turn was controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, met in Moscow. It composed a message to the Communist Party of Great Britain condemning its position and demanding a change. “You should direct your fire against capitulationist anti- Soviet elements,” ran the missive. “To demand in the present situation the replacement of the Churchill government with a ‘People’s Government’ means to bring grist to the mill of pro-Hitlerite elements in England.”

And so the CPGB did a somersault – just as it had in the aftermath of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, when the Comintern instructed it to drop its policy of maximum unity against Nazi expansionism and instead condemn the war as “imperialist”. By the end of June 1941, the party was calling for “the broadest united national front around the Churchill government”, outdoing everyone else, left or right, in its backing for the war. Orwell described the new line as “All power to Churchill!”

An old story, of course – except for one thing. It was only last weekend that the content of the “hand-out from Moscow” was first made public, in a paper delivered by Monty Johnstone, for years one of the CP’s chief ideologues, to a conference in Manchester, grandly titled “Opening the Books”, attended by 80-odd historians of the Communist Party.

For most of its life, the British Communist Party simply denied that its political line was ever determined by the Kremlin: its changes of direction were, it claimed, locally determined. And, however implausible the claim, it was impossible to counter definitively. Access to the party’s own records and those in Moscow was denied to all but official party historians, who, to the dismay of the party’s best minds, published nothing that could be construed as remotely embarrassing.

Although, from the late 1970s, some party historians admitted Soviet influence on the CPGB and then documented it from the British party archives (a process encouraged by the party itself as it prepared to wind itself up in the late 1980s), it is only since glasnost and the subsequent collapse of Soviet communism that the incontrovertible evidence of the CPGB’s subordination to the CPSU has begun to see the light of day.

In the past five years, researchers have dug out an extraordinary array of material from newly open archives in Moscow – and the 1941 Comintern directive is by no means the most exciting or revealing. In 1990, Lawrence and Wishart, the CP’s publishing outfit, published About Turn, the transcript of the CP central committee’s discussion in 1939 that led to its toeing the Moscow line of opposition to the war. Since then, other researchers have uncovered the Moscow pay-off to the CP after 1956, when it backed the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution, and the role of Stalin in the drafting of the CP programme, The British Road to Socialism, which the CP had always claimed it composed itself.

More is to come – some of it, no doubt, extremely embarrassing, and not just for former members of the Communist Party. Researchers have only just started on the archives of the Comintern, and the archives of the CPSU international department, which dealt with relations with other communist parties after the end of the Comintern, are not yet open. The same goes for both Soviet foreign office and secret police files. The delicate questions of how far the CP was the hidden hand behind much of the Labour left and the extent of its work for Soviet intelligence (suspected even by former loyal party members to have been the price of the “Moscow gold”) have yet to be addressed.

Unsurprisingly, there is a mood of expectation among historians of British communism about what the Moscow archives – now effectively on the market to the highest bidder – will yield. Kevin Morgan, one of the organisers of last weekend’s conference and the author of a recent highly acclaimed biography of British Communist leader Harry Pollitt, is particularly excited by the verbatim transcripts of CPGB central committee and Politbureau meetings collected by the Comintern. “They provide an immediacy and vividness of detail unique among the formal records of the British labour movement,” he says. “It is like an old sepia photograph suddenly become voluble and argumentative.”

But even Morgan sounds a note of caution. The Moscow archives should not be fetish-ised, he says: now that it has been firmly established that the Comintern had a decisive influence in the most important CPGB decisions something that no one outside the party ever really doubted – it is not particularly important to publish papers on the details of old news. Far more interesting is the way the “orders from Moscow” were received and implemented by the party below the leadership level: “Even apparatchiks were often guided as much by an unacknowledged pragmatism as by their formal directives.” And indeed, a major theme of recent communist history has been an emphasis on indigenous radicalism and local practice. The underlying notion is that the CP was not just Moscow’s poodle but an honourable player in British politics and society.

It was this approach to communist history that informed most of the written contributions to last weekend’s apprehensive postmortem. Few contributions were based on work in the Soviet archives, and Moscow gold was no more than a topic of speculation in the bar.

There were papers on everything from the Communist Party’s role in local government in south Wales in the 1920s and 1930s to the influence of the ideas of Marxism Today in the 1980s. And although there was little on the CP’s “heroic period” in the 1930s, when it was briefly the darling of most of the British left (including Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman), most of the writers were searching for ways to present the CP as a respectable part of the British heritage.

Paper after paper, many of them scholarly overstatements, extolled rediscovered virtues: the CP’s moderation during the latter part of the war, its trade unionists’ pragmatism, its responsibility for cultural innovations (including, bizarrely, the Great British Soap: Coronation Street, according to Andy Croft, owed a lot to the “socialist realist” screenplays by CP writers). There were exceptions to this semi-apologetic tone. A paper on the CP, race and colonialism revealed that the party was probably more of a white bastion than Labour’s colonial bureau and was constantly upbraidedby the Comintern for failing to take the colonies seriously; in the postwar years, the party, somewhat belatedly, instructed its members to sit next to black people on the London Underground. Another paper on the Daily Worker, the newspaper that became the Morning Star, argued that it was rather less of a success than CP mythology would have us believe. But for the most part, any iconoclasm was voiced, not written.

In one session, veteran Trotskyist Ray Challinor retold his anecdotes about having been beaten up by the CP’s Wal Hannington for daring to question the party’s 1940s “no strikes” line, and John Saville, who broke with the CP in 1956 and was a leading light in the first New Left, railed against the “opportunism” of the CP leadership after the war. In another workshop, younger ex-members berated the party’s failure to democratise even in the 1980s.

But for the most part this was familiar stuff – a settling of old scores of little interest to anyone who did not buy the Leninist fairytale in the first place. To the outside world, the opening of the archives provides an opportunity to ask, and answer, questions that threaten far more than the posthumous reputation of the CP. For the first time, that hobby horse of the right, the communist influence on the Labour Party, the trade union movement and left culture more generally, can become an object of serious documentary analysis.

That the CP was influential, well beyond its size, has long been obvious. As Walter Kendall made clear 25 years ago in his pioneering study of the birth of the CP, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, its very formation transformed the far left in Britain, effectively killing off the homegrown radical libertarian socialism that had found expression in syndicalism and guild socialism. Others without access to the archives have shown how, in the 1920s and 1930s, the CP played a major role in establishing the idea on the British left that “socialism” was nothing more than a matter of nationalisation and planning.

But the really fascinating and disturbing questions surround the more recent past. Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, the CP effectively controlled a large part of the trade union bureaucracy. It had sufficient influence on the Labour left to play a large part in the creation of the 1970s Alternative Economic Strategy and in 1980s Bennism.

Last weekend’s conference touched on such themes, but there is still a feeling among left-wing historians of communism, particularly the majority who were members of the party, that some stones are best left unturned. Describing precisely how a few score CP-influenced caucuses managed to control trade unions with hundreds of thousands of members seems just a little too much like class treachery even now.

Although most of the communist historians are beginning to accept that, in the words of social historian Angus Calder, “Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems,” many are still in mourning for the old days. “A lot of people here are missing the party,” said Mike Power, editor of New Times, the monthly newspaper of the CPGB’s successor, Democratic Left. “They don’t really know how to live without it.”

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