The New Worker

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Through the Distorting Mirror of Trotskyist Theory

by Andy Brooks

The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920. James Eaden and David Renton, Palgrave (Macmillan), 2002, 220pp,hdbk, £45.

The shabby end of the CPGB in 1991 has inspired a number of attempts to record the rise and fall of the old communist party in Britain. Unfortunately all of them have come from bourgeois, revisionist or Trotskyist outlooks and this work is no exception.

The authors’ state in their opening words that “the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain followed the trajectory of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. Its formation was influenced by the experience of October 1917. The degeneration of the Soviet state and the rise of Stalinism directly affected its political practice. And the final collapse of the party coincided with the break-up of the Soviet Union”.

In the following 200-odd pages Eaden and Renton seek facts to fit their Trotskyist theories to draw a very predictable conclusion. Needless to say, there is no serious discussion about the major thrust of their thesis.

The authors therefore assume that their readers will agree with their assumption that Trotsky was right and Stalin was wrong; that Stalin was a “mass murderer”; that Trotsky’s “United Front” theory was superior to the Comintern’s call for Popular Fronts and that North Korea started the Korean War.

Some attempt at broadening the discussion does take place on the “Class against Class” politics of the early Comintern, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and the pre-war anti-fascist struggle in Britain - unavoidable given the impact it had on the British communist movement.

But overall the entire work looks at the history of the CPGB through the distorting mirror of Trotskyist theory.

So while no-one can deny that the CPGB did fail and its collapse was linked to the final days of the Soviet Union Eaden and Renton have only one explanation - that the whole project was doomed once “Stalin has emerged as party leader and effective dictator [of the USSR]”.

For them, the British Road to Socialism (BRS) is an extension of pre-war Popular Front policies rather than a revisionist departure from Marxism-Leninism. And the authors make no attempt to consider the concept and practice of revisionism within the CPGB.

Though the impact of the Sino-Soviet split is noted the authors seem unaware that opposition to the Gollan leadership went beyond simply siding with Beijing against Moscow.

True there is a brief mention of Michael McCreery’s Committee to Defeat Revisionism, and the formation of the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) by Reg Birch in 1967 but only in the context of the polemic between the Communist Party of China and Krushchov’s Soviet party.

Sid French and the New Communist Party get similar short shrift, dismissed as “traditionalists”, “tankies” and “supporters of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia” without one word about the NCP’s opposition to the BRS or its stand towards the Labour Party.

On one hand the authors recognise that Krushchov had taken a different direction: "As Ian Birchall suggests, ‘the choice that confronted the CPs throughout the period - Stalinism or Social Democracy - was now posed in a particularly acute form”.

But they clearly believe that modern revisionism is in fact just another aspect of “Stalinism” -- a view reflected by many British Trotskyists who hailed the counter-revolutions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as the collapse of “Stalinism” - when in fact it was the final collapsse of revisionism..

This blinkered and plainly wrong perspective leads an extraordinary conclusion that “As the reality of Stalin’s Russia became more and more obvious, defence of Stalinism became a debilitating shibboleth which may have sustained the party faithful but which also cut off the party from large groups of workers and potential left-wing sympathisers … the legacy of a Stalinised Marxism also meant that the party could never develop a dynamic understanding of Marxist theory to apply as a guide to their political practice in Britain. The Gramscian turn of the 1970s was the nearest the party was to come to a re-appraisal of Stalinised Marxism, but the reading of Gramsci taken by the party was to merely re-enforce the already established Popular Frontism of the party”.

Facts have a way of asserting themselves despite the most absurd theories and this is revealed in the book’s history of the ups and downs of the CPGB over the years.

Eaden and Renton recognise the fact that the CPGB leadership had begun to embark on a revisionist course in the 40s - though they call it “Popular Frontism” and attribute it directly to the influence of the Soviet Union and the Comintern in the 30s.

After blaming “Stalinism” for the woes of the CPGB the authors add: “Popular Front politics, adopted in 1935-36 and never seriously challenged thereafter, are a second and connected factor leading to the debacle of 1990-91. The British Road to Socialism, the Broad Democratic Alliance, Eurocommunism, even New Times, were all continuations of this theme. In each case the argument was put forward that some process of working-class moderation would open up the space for a radical left government. The problem for the Communist Party was that in arguing for diminished expectations, it was attempting to occupy a political space which was already successfully inhabited by the Labour Party.

Having chosen not to be a revolutionary party, the CPGB had little success when it attempted reformism. Determined not to become a mere “ginger group” to the left of Labour, the leaders of the party found themselves in precisely that situation that they were most keen to avoid. The strategies undertaken to surmount isolation were all unsuccessful. Despite sporadic, local successes, the electoral strategy failed to take off. There were no Communist MPs after 1950. In stressing the priorities of the Popular Front the part was often to act as a moderating and conservative influence on groups of left activists within the Labour Party the unions and the broader movements over which the party retained a significant degree of influence”.

This clearly would have been a better focus for a workers’ history of the CPGB - but that book has sadly still to be written.