23 August 2003


Paul Anderson, review of Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68 by John Callaghan (Lawrence and Wishart, £14.99), Tribune August 22 2003

The historian John Callaghan, professor of politics at the University of Wolverhampton, is extraordinarily prolific. In the past 20 years, he has authored no fewer than five hefty tomes, including an impressive historical overview of the British left, a magisterial biography of the Stalinist ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt and a comprehensive history of European social democracy since the 1970s.

I have long been an admirer of his work, but his latest book, a history of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1951 to 1968, just published by Lawrence and Wishart, is his best yet.

At first sight, his subject is not particularly attractive. The CP in the 1950s and 1960s was tiny in comparison with the Labour Party - the CP claimed fewer than 40,000 members in 1950 (when Labour’s official individual membership was more than 900,000) and it dipped below 25,000 in 1958, recovering to around 35,000 during the mid-1960s. It was a marginal force in electoral politics. It had lost the two parliamentary seats it won in 1945 in 1950, was humiliated in every subsequent general election and never got more than a toehold in local government.

Moreover, the CP was anything but a font of creative thinking on the left. The advocacy of an anti-fascist Popular Front that had sustained it in the late 1930s and then again in the 1940s (after an embarrassing gap during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact) had stopped making sense with the defeat of fascism and the onset of the cold war. Although the party certainly had its share of talented intellectuals in the early 1950s — the historians Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson and the critic John Berger are probably the best known today — its political culture was stifling, monolithic and intellectually stale. Its defining feature was its unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union, on which it was financially reliant - and that unswerving loyalty led most of its best minds to leave in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Most of the party's leaders were old and undynamic, unremittingly hostile to the emerging consumer society and to the corrupting influence of rock and roll. CP publications, most of them written in a notoriously wooden style, consistently predicted an imminent catastrophic crisis of capitalism - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that would inevitably lead to the establishment of socialism.

Yet, as Callaghan makes clear, it would be foolish to underestimate the significance of the CP or simply to dismiss it as dour and deluded. Its membership was certainly small by comparison with Labour’s - and smaller than it had been in the 1940s, when the CP had basked in the reflected glory of the Red Army's heroic efforts on the Eastern Front.

But it was still much bigger than that of any far-left party either before 1941 or since 1968. And the CP punched above its weight. It sustained almost as many paid party workers as Labour (except at election time), ran dozens of campaigns and was adept at getting its people into key positions, especially in the trade unions. By the late 1960s, co-operating with other left-wingers in various union "Broad Lefts" and riding on the back of a surge of workplace militancy over wages, the CP had serious leverage in the unions both at national leadership level and among shop stewards.

The CP was also much more influential in the realm of ideas than it ought to have been. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to dismiss its encomiums to Soviet achievements and predictions of capitalist collapse. But at the time its attitudes were widely shared on the Labour left. As Callaghan demonstrates, quoting amply from Tribune, although the Bevanite left took the side of Tito against Stalin in the early 1950s and was highly critical of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution, it repeatedly let itself be lulled into wishful thinking about the trajectory of Soviet socialism, exaggerating both the prospects of de-Stalinisation and the extent of Soviet economic and technological success.

The events and the political culture Callaghan describes were a long time ago. He leaves his story with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which divided the CP into pro- and anti-Soviet factions — a division that over the next 15 years turned schismatic and destroyed the party. But the mindset of the old CP is still a factor in British left politics. The Communist Party of Britain, which controls the Morning Star, groups together most of the CP’s pro-Soviet faction and behaves just as the old CP used to – right down to sucking up to dictatorships overseas, although in recent years it has had to settle for Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

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