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It’s been a long time coming. Studies of Communist Party history in Britain have been published on a substantial scale over recent decades. Four volumes of “official history” by party members James Klugmann and Nora Branson took the story from before the foundation of the party in 1920 up to 1951.
These were informative if somewhat orthodox accounts, written by historians in a position to reveal more but who chose to present the facts and defend them against the party’s right-wing and far-left detractors.
Books by John Callaghan and Geoff Andrews were presented by their publishers as a continuation of the series. Unfortunately, however, the former tried too hard amidst a welter of useful information to portray a tired party in inexorable decline, either wrong or thwarted sooner or later at almost every turn.
The less said about Andrews’ one-sided apologia for the destructive impact of Eurocommunist revisionism, the better. He has composed a semi-fictional odyssey which ends with Odysseus slaying Penelope in a mercy killing.
Much else has been published, of course, usually from a hostile standpoint.
Henry Pelling wrote an early history which depicted Britain’s communists as a sinister, ruthless conspiracy contaminating the trade-union movement and directed from Moscow. Very little else has been produced by right-wing historians of any substantial reputation.
Perhaps Britain’s ruling-class intellectuals have been happy to leave the hatchet jobs to far-left writers. Their efforts appear to have been mostly driven by the sectarian requirements of their own past or present political affiliations.
Thus James Eaden and David Renton are desperate to show how almost every major policy and action of the “Stalinists” over 70 years was either misconceived, a failure, or a betrayal of the working class and the cause of world revolution. What little the party fleetingly got right appears to have been mostly accidental. The authors’ many errors of omission are even more telling than those of commission.
In recent years, a largely non-communist academic school of party historiography has flourished, enriched by access to party, British state, Soviet and Red International of Labour Unions archives in London, Moscow and Amsterdam. They reveal much about the internal workings and machinations of the CP and its interaction with foreign communists and the British state.
While some prolific historians like Kevin Morgan have mined these usefully while placing undue emphasis on personal feuds and rivalries, the researches of Andrew Thorpe and Matthew Worley have undermined some well-worn anti-communist myths about the party’s past.
Eminently readable accounts by the likes of Francis Beckett, Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy have tended to rely on previous stereotypes and — for the later period — on interviewees wielding a well-ground axe.
Many other books, pamphlets and articles deal with particular periods, episodes and personalities in the history of the Communist Party in Britain. Tom Sibley’s biography of Bert Ramelson stands out in this last field, whereas Nina Fishman’s semi-fictional Arthur Horner is forever in despair and on the verge of quitting the party (as he never did).
Now, at last, 21 party members and allies have written a comprehensive one-volume history to mark the party’s centenary this year. Ranged across 300 pages, the authors include distinguished labour movement historians such as editor Mary Davis, John Foster and Roger Seifert as well as party leaders and prominent trade unionists Liz Payne, Anita Halpin, Ann Field and Alex Gordon.
Their work has been arranged in a pattern that combines a thematic with a chronological approach, reflecting the class struggle on its political, economic and ideological fronts.
The first section highlights the role of the party in the anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-colonial and peace movements. Chapters also cover the Second World War by Phil Katz, the party’s electoral strategies and — warts and all — the major internal crises in the party and its relations with the international communist movement.
These contents frequently give the lie to misrepresentations of the CP in Britain as undemocratic and economistic, as Comintern cat’s-paws lacking commitment to the international struggle for socialism.
The second section gives due weight to the significant part played by communists in the General Strike, the National Unemployed Workers Movement and the epic battles against post-war class collaboration, from “Butskellism” and the Social Contract to anti-union laws and New Labour. Jonathan White outlines the emergence and rationale of the party’s Alternative Economic and Political Strategy.
In the third section, on the battle of ideas, Morning Star readers will be familiar with the names of contributors Ben Chacko, Nick Wright, Christine Lindey and Andy Croft. They tell the story of the paper, its guiding political programme, and the extraordinary work of the party in the cultural sphere.
Other chapters deal in depth with anti-communism and the party policies and activities, past and present, in the women’s movement and on the national question and the European Common Market.
Nobody interested in the history and present condition of the labour movement should be without this comprehensive, well-written and expertly informed book. It challenges preconceptions, explodes myths and provides a worthy testimony to 100 years of struggle, dedication and sacrifice on the part of one hundred thousand Communists across Britain.
A Centenary for Socialism will be available from November 14 from Shop.communistparty.org.uk priced £9.99 plus p&p.
On Saturday, November 14, the CP will be hosting an online meeting, ‘Making History’, to launch A Centenary for Socialism — Britain’s Communist Party 1920-2020. Speakers include: CP general secretary Robert Griffiths, Morning Star editor Ben Chacko, historian and book editor Mary Davis, international secretary John Foster and Liz Payne chair of the CP. To register, go to: https://www.communistparty.org.uk/making-history-launch-meeting.
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