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How the Communist Party has been making history for 100 years

MARY DAVIS previews a new history of the CP and its many struggles over the decades

A HISTORY of the Communist Party from 1920-2020 is long overdue. This new book, published today, is not it. 

It doesn’t even pretend to complete the work started by James Klugmann and Noreen Branson who between them charted the party’s history up to 1951.

Instead, this volume, produced for the centenary of the Communist Party, is thematic. 

It is neither celebratory nor downcast. It attempts to be honest. Honesty means recognising that our history is not one of unalloyed success. 

But by the same token, it is not one of unmitigated failure either. The chapters in this book, each written by a different author, seek to capture and analyse the peaks and troughs of the past 100 years. 

As a whole, the book does not turn a blind eye to the difficult periods in our history — the sectarianism of “class against class,” the issues around the CPSU 20th congress, the blight of Eurocommunism, the collapse of the socialist countries. 

Neither does it hold back on our past ideological weaknesses in relation to women, race and much else. 

At the same time, however, it records with pride some major achievements in our political analysis and political practice.

The book is themed around what Engels termed the three areas of struggle for communists: the political struggle, the economic struggle and the ideological struggle. 

For communists all three are linked, and although it is artificial to separate them, it has proved useful to do so in structuring this book in the interest of avoiding a chronological narrative. 

Even so it is plain that some chapters straddle more than one of these three fields.

It is important for communists to redress the unequal balance in reclaiming our history. 

Since the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent opening of the Soviet state archives, academic researchers from varied political standpoints have mined this new primary resource, which has now been fully digitised by the very reactionary Hoover Institute in the US. 

How weirdly ironic (and utterly inappropriate) that such an institution has become the resting place for the archives of Soviet communism!  

In Britain the archive of the CPGB, after its dissolution in 1991, found its new home in Manchester’s People’s History Museum. 

It was catalogued in 1993-94 and can be viewed there on site or, in payment of a hefty sum, it can be consulted remotely via Microform. 

Access is thus limited to academics and as a result this has spawned a flurry of non-communist historians of communism, many of whom are deeply anti-communist. 

But does this matter? There’s nothing wrong with historians using primary resources to write books and articles, even if we disagree with their analysis. 

The point is that communist historians, as opposed to historians of the Communist Party, have neglected their own history. 

This rich field of research has been left to others. Labour history, a discipline which has been languishing in recent times, is impoverished without an understanding of the role of the Communist Party in the British labour movement over the past 100 years. 

Marxists understand that history is made by us and not for us. This history has shown how communists have attempted to make our own history. 

We understand that human agency in the form of class struggle is the motor of history. 

But, to misquote Marx (in the 18th Brumaire), we do not make our history as we please; we do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

Again, this history is testimony to the fact that British communists have worked tirelessly throughout our 100-year history in grappling with the good and bad circumstances bequeathed to us from our past. 

We have battled in the belly of the beast of the first capitalist state which has spawned a huge empire ruled by a clever and entrenched ruling class and buttressed by a sophisticated ideological and repressive apparatus. 

At the same time we have also inherited a rich tradition of popular protest and working-class struggle through our well-established trade unions and political organisations dating from 19th-century Chartism to 21st-century labourism.

The development of the British labour movement throughout its history is a product of the tension between rival ideologies; between the vision of harmonious accommodation within the capitalist system and the vision of a different system altogether. 

Variously the ideologies inspiring these visions and the practices which they motivated could be called, in their pure and most polarised forms, left or right, radical or reactionary, socialist or capitalist, revolutionary or reformist. 

Here in Britain, the infinite capacity of the first capitalist and industrial nation to accommodate dissent has led ultimately to a dominant labourist consensus which, while offering at times the possibility of hope and change, overall has accepted the parameters of the existing social order and sought defence of its interests within it. 

On the other hand, those whose consciousness of class has led them to challenge consensus and collaboration have bequeathed to us the legacy of defiance and this legacy, because of their rejection of the settled values of capitalist society, has encompassed, albeit in halting measure, the struggle to end class exploitation for ever. 

The Communist Party was and still is the most steadfast champion of this legacy — the socialist tradition. 

Our history is embedded in the history of the working class and the labour movement, nationally and internationally. 

Communists and the Communist Party have been part of Britain’s social reality for 100 years. 

This, the social reality of capitalism, is the class society we have inhabited and struggled against, with varying degrees of success. 

We have tried (in Marx’s words) “to interpret the world in various ways” but obviously have not succeeded in changing it! 

This book attempts to assess our efforts to change the world over the past century. 

As communists we are the inheritors of our history and we should be in the forefront of reclaiming it. 

There is thus much work to be done. This book is but a modest beginning. It is to be hoped that it will both stimulate and inspire not only a fully up-to-date history, but further research on all the aspects of the party’s work outlined in this present volume. 

So, as we absorb our history we must not only celebrate our many achievements, but learn from our mistakes. 

The challenges we face in the 21st century are different from those in Marx’s day, but the underlying issues are the same. 

The British empire is gone, but neocolonialism remains. Britain as the industrial “workshop of the world” is gone, but capitalism remains in Britain in its deindustrialised form. 

The composition of the working class has changed, but the struggle between capital and labour remains. 

Class struggle remains, but so do the divisive ideologies, including sexism and racism, which impede its progress. 

Marxism remains, but is only relevant if we apply it to analysing the new realities of 21st-century capitalism and the entrenched ideologies which sustain it.

Tomorrow 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: mstar.link/MakingHistoryBookLaunch.

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