IT OUGHT to have been celebrated as a Great Leap Forward. Four years ago, 213 Communists were permitted to meet in the basement conference centre of the Trades Union Congress building in Bloomsbury. A generation earlier, the TUC would rather have made space for the Mafia or some international drug cartel. At last the Communist Party of Great Britain had come in from the cold.
But this ground-breaking meeting - held only yards from the Reading Room of the British Museum where Marx had worked on Das Kapital - was a wake. The delegates to the 43rd and last Congress of the CPGB were all revisionists, their task to shut down the 71-year-old organisation.
George Matthews, editor of the Communist daily paper, the Morning Star, was heard to bemoan the passing of the party. "I still believe Marxism has something to offer, so I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said, adding "The trouble is that there's a lot of dirty water and rather a small baby."
Matthews was right. The British CP was always a pretty seedy infant. It was never a mass party, never a serious revolutionary force, never had significant parliamentary representation, and, from its foundation in 1920 to its demise in 1991, survived, not (as it claimed) on the workers' pennies, but on Moscow gold.
And yet the Communists exercised influence far beyond their modest numbers, and commanded a tolerance from the British public which was quite extraordinary when one considers that the party was a faithful apologist for the Soviet Union.
This lively yet meticulous work attempts to explain the paradox. Beckett does not entirely succeed, but he recreates the ambience with skill, and he confirms my conviction that the cancer was present from the beginning.
When the party was founded by 160 revolutionary socialists in 1920 and revolution was just around the corner, it had all seemed different. Even so, its creation was not a spontaneous British event. Lenin himself forced the merger of the squabbling groups which formed the CPGB and paid its huge bills: from the beginning, the party was the paid creature of Moscow.
Lenin had recognised the unique characteristics of the British Left. The Labour Party was the chosen instrument of the working class, and its unique constitution allowed other political groups to affiliate, as most unions did. Through a network of agents the new party was instructed to demand affiliation to the Labour Party, and Communists were ordered to infiltrate existing trade unions instead of creating rival bodies.
As the author makes (depressingly) clear, subservience to Moscow is the thread which runs through the party's history. Sometimes it is expressed with humour. In 1927 one memorandum to the Comintern, which controlled all foreign parties, read: "What about some Moscow gold...Ask Bukharin to send a couple of bob..." Or with appalling cynicism - as when Stalin insisted that it should support Hitler's Germany at the time of the Nazi-Soviet 1939 Pact on principle rather than as a political tactic.
After the invasion of Hungary in 1966, the CPGB all but collapsed. Most of those who remained loyal realised that the only hope for the party was to demonstrate its independence - but a new general secretary went to Moscow and there negotiated secret payments of pounds 100,000 a year to keep the newly "independent" party in business. Even after the CPGB condemned the Czech invasion, British apparatchiks continued to take the loot.
In the 1960s and 1970s this discredited party was exercising unprecedented influence over an unreformed and undemocratic union movement by supporting non-Communists "with whom the Communists felt comfortable". As a result, the contradictions inherent from the beginning became apparent. You had a Communist Party dedicated to subverting the Wilson/Callaghan governments, yet seeking to affiliate to the Labour Party. You had a Communist Party dedicated to upholding trade union bureaucrats, while assorted groups of Trots attacked them from the Left and radical Right reformers such as Norman Tebbit were preparing to "give the unions back to their members".
It all came to a head, appropriately enough in 1984, when Arthur Scargill, a Labour man, led the miners into their doomed dispute. Margaret Thatcher called them "the enemy within", and in her terms she was correct. The miners' strike was the nearest thing to a revolutionary working class uprising since the General Strike of 1926.
The party felt compelled to support the strike, the quasi-revolutionary violence, and the refusal to take decisions democratically. After decades trudging along Stalin's supposedly democratic British Road, the Communists, like the miners, had come to the end.
All that was left was a bitter quarrel between reformers and fundamentalists over the corpse of the Morning Star, the revisionist monthly Marxism Today, and the substantial property assets initially supplied by the Soviet Union, itself on the verge of collapse. In its final nine months, Beckett estimates the CP made pounds 100,000 playing the money markets and pounds 45,000 renting out office space, "nearly four times as much as from membership subscriptions, donations and appeals". By 1991, there was nothing coming in from Moscow, where the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been declared an illegal organisation.