BOOK REVIEW / Working-class hero who followed the wrong leader: 'Harry Pollitt' - Kevin Morgan: Manchester University Press, 40 pounds

IN 1950 the 'Beloved Leader' celebrated his 60th birthday. The party organised a great rally at which groups as diverse as Communist lawyers and bakers came forward to grovel. They presented him with endless gifts, including rose trees, a cake and a set of coffee tables. The leader's modesty, his courage and his links with the masses were hymned. So, too, were the erudition and unequalled grasp of Marxism-Leninism demonstrated by this blacksmith's son who had started work in a factory aged 12 and never made the slightest claim to academic or theoretical skills.

The praise for 'the greatest leader of the . . . people' grew evermore extreme. 'In our general secretary we have no detached and distant leader,' gushed a senior apparatchik. 'Leader yes, but also bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of the toilers. That is the most important part of his genius.'

This distasteful celebration was not held in Moscow or East Berlin. It took place in the Lime Grove Baths, Shepherd's Bush, west London, and the genius was Harry Pollitt, founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its head from 1929 to 1956.

With the collapse of Communism and the consequent opening of party files here and in Moscow, it has finally proved possible to produce a serious biography of the man who had come to personify Communism in this country. The sad thing about Pollitt's synthetic birthday celebration was that it was unnecessary as well as demeaning. As Morgan points out, Pollitt - decent, unassuming, kindly, pragmatic and very, very British, at least in his earlier years - was the nearest thing to a Communist working-class hero produced by this country. Had he not chosen to devote his life to the interests of the Soviet Union, he would almost certainly have been a union leader or Labour minister of the calibre of, say, Ernie Bevin.

Pollitt's tale is then a tragedy. An associate of Lenin and Stalin, he was one of the founding fathers of the Communist International. He worshipped a false god; came briefly, in middle life, to recognise his error - but lacked the ultimate courage to accept that his God had failed. Instead he recanted and devoted his final decades to an increasingly grotesque and extreme defence of the worst excesses of Stalinism and post-Stalinism, culminating in the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary.

Pollitt's moment of truth came in 1939 with the Nazi-Soviet pact and the attack on Poland. Chamberlain declared war on Germany. Morgan stresses that Pollitt's raison d'etre had been the fight against fascism. Not surprisingly, he supported the war. But a courier from Stalin instructed the British party to oppose the struggle. Pollitt resisted briefly, and was purged.

The party went on to conduct what Pollitt described privately as 'a pure Goebbels type of fascist progaganda' to undermine the British war effort. (Ironically, Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists endorsed the war.) Pollitt threatened to return to manual labour rather than accept 'an office boy's job and being dictated to by someone half as competent'. Instead he accepted a series of pathetic hack jobs in provincial party offices and composed self-flagellating confessions of error for the Daily Worker. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Pollitt was restored to the general secretaryship.

After the war Pollitt was instrumental in the adoption of The British Road To Socialism. The document pledged the party's independence from Moscow, and committed it to working for the democratic and constitutional (as opposed to the revolutionary) overthrow of capitalism. The document also promised internal party democracy. The trouble was that the new line was adopted on Stalin's personal instruction, given to Pollitt in a series of secret meeetings in the Kremlin and imposed on the British party without discussion. Little wonder that the non-Communist left looked with suspicion on the imposition of democracy by diktat, Soviet style.

Shortly before he retired, Pollitt returned from a visit to the dismal People's Democracies. 'Men like ourselves are performing greater miracles in the realms of Socialist and Communist construction, than it was thought that even Gods could ever do,' he announced. Eventually he told British party members, horrified by Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's atrocities: 'If you've got a headache, you should take an aspirin.' Pollitt died in 1960, with a portrait of Stalin defiantly on display in the living-room of his suburban semi.

How lucky we are that - as Morgan concludes - the founding fathers of Communism are now 'almost as remote from us as the Anabaptists or the Southcottians'.