BOOK REVIEW / Back to the dustbin: The Good Old Cause - Willie Thompson: Pluto Press, pounds 12.95

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN NOVEMBER 1991 a majority of the delegates to the 43rd congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain voted to dump the organisation in what Marx called 'the dustbin of history'. It was a sorry end to the only party to have been created on the direct instruction of Lenin himself.

This is the most revealing study to have emerged from the wreckage. Willie Thompson admits the sheer horror as well as utter failure, moral and material, of the Soviet model of Communism. He is equally honest about the grovelling sycophancy that typified the British party's treatment of its Moscow masters and the ill-judged arrogance of its behaviour at home.

Perceptively, Thompson likens the party in the Stalin years both to 'a secular church . . . a community of the elite', with internal bonds similar to those of 'fervent religious groupings' and to an underground 'political army'. He stresses that involvement in secular religions demands self-sacrifice and nobility of character, while offering the elect an excuse to suspend conventional morality.

Even so the limitations of this work are manifold, and say much about the subject. For example, the 71-year-old party was reconstituted last year as a loose association of like-minded people. The change was supposedly made with humility, following the collapse of Communism and the revelations about the scale of the destruction that it had caused. But the name selected for the new grouping, Democratic Left, expressed the arrogance, self-righteousness and exclusiveness that had characterised the Communist Party from the start.

To imply that this handful of Marxists, ex-Marxists and post-Marxists somehow constituted the British left was silly. For all its weaknesses, the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions continue, overwhelmingly, to represent left-wing opinion - as they did through the lifetime of the CPGB. As for 'Democratic', it ill behoved the survivors of what they now admit to have been a Soviet-subsidised, foreign-dominated, centralist and secretive organisation to lay claim to the word.

For all his struggle to break free, Willie Thompson, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Polytechnic, remains part of the 'too little, too late' brigade of revisionists who gradually came to dominate the CPGB following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and the subsequent, morale-shattering Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The response of the party leadership to those events was, as Thompson records, dishonest, 'unbelievably stupid' and 'corrupt'. What he does not say is that it was typical. After much breast-beating they issued a revised version of the party's statement of aims, The British Road to Socialism, stressing their independence from the Kremlin and their commitment to the democratic process both nationally and within the party.

Then they took off to Moscow and arranged for secret subsidies of up to pounds 100,000 a year. Payments continued until little more than a decade ago, and were still being denied in London when Soviet party files began to leak.

Although much of this work rings true, there are two areas badly covered by Mr Thompson. The first involves the role of David Springhall, the Comintern representative in this country in the Thirties, in espionage and the running of agents, and in the provision of instructions and funds to the British party. To claim that Springhall and company were 'hopeless amateurs', who engaged in 'espionage of a sort' and were soon apprehended, is simply ludicrous. They were key players.

Second, to suggest that there was no significant conspiratorial Communist presence in the trade union movement during the Wilson and Callaghan years is nonsense. The constant encouragement of strikes in support of unrealistic wage demands, the destruction of Barbara Castle's union reforms and the co-ordinated attempts to capture positions of power in order to influence Labour Party policy, did much to destroy the credibility of that party - more than Mr Thompson is prepared to admit.