Gordon McLennan: Political activist who led the Communist Party of Great Britain but was unable to prevent its demise

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gordon McLennan was the last of the old style working-class Communist general secretaries to lead the British party, at a time which would see it split as hardline traditionalists fought progressive euro-communists over which direction it should take.

He tried unsuccessfully to keep the party together before handing it over to his successor, who would oversee its dissolution.

Born in Glasgow in 1924, McLennan was the first of his family to become a "white collar" worker when he became an engineering draughtsman at Albion Motors on the Clyde. He joined the Young Communist League when he was 15. Scotland was still feeling the effects of the Depression; poverty in Glasgow was at its height. The Communist Party, well grounded in Scotland, offered a political and philosophical grassroots movement that many young working-class Scots were drawn to.

He served on the YCL executive committee from 1942 until 1947, when he became a full-time organiser for the Communist Party of Great Britain, first in Glasgow and then, in 1956, as Scottish secretary. He became a member of the party's National Executive in 1957 and in 1966 was appointed national organiser, with responsibility for the YCL. In 1975 he became General Secretary, succeeding his fellow Scot John Gollan. The party membership had dropped after the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring twelve years later: many had left in protest, and the conflict between left and right was tearing the party apart.

McLennan served at a time of transition when the party was moving away from the Soviet Union. From the beginning his leadership was undermined by events dating back to the Cold War. When he took the job, his predecessor broke the news that, since 1956, the party had been receiving money from the Soviet Union, handed over in clandestine meetings between a Soviet Embassy official and Gollan's deputy, Reuben Falber. McLennan told Gollan he wanted the practice to stop immediately; it continued for another four years, with McLennan, as he stated, knowing nothing about it.

In 1976, desperately short of money, the party sold its headquarters in King Street, Covent Garden, which had been bought with money sent secretly from Russia by Lenin. The party lost its recognised centre, and McLennan an established base.

Two factions – the hard-line, disciplined traditionalists and the forward-thinking euro-communists, who refused to toe the Soviet line – fought for control of the party. When its much vaunted manifesto "The British Road to Socialism" failed to make a mark on the electorate McLennan became determined to modernise. The arguments became to a certain extent generational: although some of his friends sided with him, McLennan was accused of betraying his older, Soviet-supporting comrades as he sided with the more libertarian eurocommunist line taken by the younger intellectuals led by people such as Martin Jacques, editor of Marxism Today. The more traditional Soviet line was reflected in the party's own paper the Morning Star.

A decision had been made in 1946 to distance the paper, then the Daily Worker, from the party by giving it more autonomy. Now the Morning Star attacked McLennan, who tried to wrest back control of the paper by getting his supporters on to its management committee. Meetings broke up as he and they were booed. He was left in charge of the party offices and buildings while his opponents controlled the valuable assets of the Morning Star. Members were expelled Soviet-style as McLennan fought for control.

During the miners' strike of 1984-1985 McLennan feared the miners were being led to disaster by Arthur Scargill. A meeting between McLennan, his industrial organiser Pete Carter, Scargill and the communist Scottish miners' leader Mick McGahey aimed at promoting unity ended in a furious row. Further rows during the News International strike became increasingly bitter.

One man prepared to listen to McLennan, was Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he advised on how to establish a relationship and deal with Margaret Thatcher; in exchange Gorbachev tried to advise him on how to deal with his party. But in 1988 members grouped around the Morning Star formed a separate party, the Communist Party of Britain.

In 1990, McLennan retired as General Secretary, handing over the leadership to Nina Temple. The party had drawn up a programme reinventing itself as facilitator of a progressive coalition fighting for social justice. The next year with a membership of only 8,000, the party wound itself up, and a new organisation, Democratic Left, was established. McLennan refused to join and instead signed up to the Communist Party of Scotland. According to his son Greg, McLennan had been very sad about the split, but had not believed it was his responsibility: "His view was that modern pluralistic thought had to be given its chance of expression. He was very upset about what had happened but he never held grudges."

In retirement McLennan threw himself in to campaigning for the National Pensioners Convention, becoming a member of its national executive and chair of its Lambeth branch. A charming, unassuming man, he and his wife Mary, both of whom had been in the YCL choir, were famous at parties for their rendition of Scottish songs. He was often found playing golf, still declaring himself to be a communist, by philosophy if not by membership.

Gordon McLennan, political activist: born Glasgow 12 May 1924; married 1950 Mary (three sons, one daughter); died Lambeth, London 21 May 2011.