Tendance Coatesy

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The British Communist Party and the Soviet Union. An Introduction.

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“Stalin, whose great work tends to undervalued today, was a great creative statesman, however much he may have blundered in his later years. It is doubtful whether any less determined leadership would have laid the foundations of socialism.”

John Lewis. Socialism and the Individual. Lawrence and Wishart. 1961.

“The achievements of socialism, once a distant dream, are now a reality for all to see, in many countries of the world.”

The British Road To Socialism. Communist Party Programme. 1968.

Nick Cohen recently wrote of “Corbyn surrounding himself with aides from the Communist Party of Britain and the fragments of the Socialist Workers Party. (9.12.17. Observer). We can largely dismiss the histrionic overtones of the columnist’s polemic. But what is he talking about? Many on the left are familiar with the SWP, or at least its placards. Even the Taafites, who have taken to imitating the hand-held-poster-road-to-socialism have a degree of public recognition, as “formerly the Militant.”

Yet apart from an awareness that the organisation exists, about 1,000 strong, and that it dominates the small circulation but widely read in the labour movement, Morning Star, the views of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) are not widely known even on the left.

The fate of the unpublished letters to the Guardian by one of the CPB’s leading representatives, Nick Wright, further indicates a lack of interest in the left of centre MSM (Last month’s unpublished letters to the Guardian).

This short introduction hopes to remedy the gap.

To begin any discussion of the Party (usually capitalised in their documents) one has to start with….Communism. As Evan Smith has underlined, “The Communist Party of Britain was, and remains, probably the most significant party that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism.” (1)

John Lewis and the 1960s editions of the British Road to Socialism indicate that strong support for the Soviet Union was long dominant in the party the CPB came out of, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). This continued right up till the 1970s, with party members (I am citing personal experience) reading Soviet Weekly and Sputnik. This is not the place to describe the clashes which ended in the dissolution of the Party in 1991 and the processes that led to the CPB foundation in 1988. The strand we concentrate is their position, post refoundation, on the USSR.

In a section of the present edition of the (CPB) British Road to Socialism – devoted to the reasons for the end of the Soviet Union – it is asserted that,

Russia and the other countries of the Soviet Union were transformed from semi-feudal, semi-capitalist monarchist dictatorships into modern societies with near-full employment, universally free education and healthcare, affordable housing for all, extensive and cheap public transport, impressive scientific and cultural facilities, rights for women and degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities. This was achieved through a world historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning.This was achieved through a world historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning. (2)

The CPB’s account of how they came to consider flaws in this praiseworthy society, (from “full employment” “social ownership”, to “degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities”) is set out in The Communist Party 1920–2010 (Robert Griffiths, the present Party General Secretary, and Ben Stevenson). It is as follows,

“the downfall of the Soviet Union and the socialist states of Eastern Europe compelled Britain’s Communists – and serious Marxists everywhere – to analyse the reasons for counter-revolution.”

“The reconvened 41st Congress of the CP in November 1992 made its assessment; ‘The root cause if the collapse lay in the particular forms of economic and political structure which developed in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the great mass of working people came to be progressively excluded from any direct control over their economic and social destiny. This erosion of the very essence of socialism increasingly affected all aspects of Soviet society’.” (3)

The build up to this statement is outlined in the Hateful of History article already cited. The Morning Star had begun to lay out this view during the collapse of the Soviet Union. They flagged up the,

….authoritarian straitjacket’ that was ‘suffocating’ the Soviet Union was a theme returned to repeatedly in the Morning Star’s reporting on the final days of the Soviet Bloc. While the paper and the CPB commended the Soviet Union for transforming Russia ‘from its state of backwardness in 1917’ into ‘a highly industrialised state with enormous potential’ and defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, it criticised the ‘inertia of the bureaucratic-command system that it created’ and argued that during the Cold War, this centralised command economy ‘ultimately stultified social development and limited the democratic participation of the people.’ (4)


What did they have to say about Stalin’s rule? The Communist Party 1920 – 2010 states, that for its admirers, it had its good side, “For much of the 1930s, the Soviet Union had appeared a bastion of peace and stability amid a world of mass unemployment, fascist aggression and colonial exploitation, Communists everywhere helped publicise its enormous economic, scientific and cultural achievements.” (5)

On the Terror and the Gulag they wrote principally about the Moscow Trials, “When respected lawyers, politicians and diplomats attended the Moscow Show trials and confirmed that the defendants had indeed confessed to being members of a ‘Trotsky-fascist;’ campaign of espionage and subversion, Britain’s Communists were not alone in believing that such plots had indeed existed.” (6)

It was only after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had taken place, and Khrushchev revealed the extent of the horrors, many Communists around the world were shocked to learnt that violations of socialist democracy and human rights had taken place on such a scale.”(7) Despite this, and the armed Soviet intervention in Hungary to “protect the socialist state”, “For many Party members, the class struggle at home provided reason enough to stay” (Ibid).

The section following the favourable account of the Soviet Union’s achievements, in the British Road to Socialism (reprised and modified by the CPB) ,  makes this side of their analysis of the Soviet Union clear “‘a bureaucratic-command system of economic and political rule became entrenched. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the trade unions became integrated into the apparatus of the state, eroding working class and popular democracy. Marxism-Leninism was used dogmatically to justify the status quo rather than make objective assessments of it.At times, and in the late 1930s in particular, severe violations of socialist democracy and law occurred. Large numbers of people innocent of subversion or sabotage were persecuted, imprisoned and executed. This aided the world-wide campaign of lies and distortions aimed at the Soviet Union, the international communist movement and the concept of socialism. (8)

Most readers will have seen that the statement avoids saying why the predecessors of the CPB, the CPGB, and its fellow travellers, avoided a global critique of the USSR, from the pre-war period up to the 1980s. The reason is perhaps too obvious to state: they supported the Soviet system. That was the reason why the Communist Party existed. While the CPGB (at least after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) allowed partial criticisms of Moscow policy, the current that became the CPB was founded on the idea that it was part of a ‘world historic break’ with capitalism. When it comes down to it, it claim that, however much it may have lacked “popular democracy”, the actually existing form of the “concept” of ‘Socialism’ had to be defended against “lies and distortions”.

Marxism-Leninists’ own History.

The ‘science’ of Marxism-Leninism is a poor guide to the thinking of the CPB. A sceptic would remark that the history Griffiths and Stevenson present, is a projection backwards into the minds of those who in the 1930s gloried in the Socialist Sixth of the World and would not recognise that they had been wrong. But to conjure up, today, the hopes raise by the defeat of Nazi Germany with the USSR’s decisive contribution, and the spread of the ‘socialist’ social system in Eastern Europe and the victory of the People’s Liberation Army in China is not a help to understanding the history of the Soviet Union. This is an account by those willing to put blinkers over their eyes faced with the evidence of Soviet repression that came out in the post war years trying to retrospectively justify their forebears.

There are reasons not to off hand dismiss the account.  If we take this imaginative step further we can see that our resurrected Communist activist of the past would have had other reasons for not listening to those opposed to Stalinism. As Paul Flewers has pointed out, during the 1930s, that to admit faults in the homeland of socialism would have been to agree with the Right, even the far-right which they could see only too well in Nazi Germany and Italy. In Britain, he writes, it was largely from the “many “traditional anti-Communists” who pointed to the mass murder and “extreme authoritarian rule” in the USSR. While there were reservations about Stalin by social democratic and Labour figures there were only isolated critics from the left. Indeed, “the idea that the “Soviet regime under Stalin was essentially a conservative counter-revolutionary force – was seldom is ever publicly broached in the political mainstream, and only occasionally elsewhere.”(9)

After the Second World War this tendency was reinforced. Even with evidence and acknowledgement of mass repression there were earnest debates amongst French intellectuals like Merleau- Ponty (Humanisme et terreur. 1947) and in the following decade around Jean Paul Sartre’s  Les communistes et la paix (1952)  over whether Stalinist terror was justified in the name of building a communist future. Flewers points out that the Communist defence of the Soviet Union continued during the Cold War, when polarisation of opinion meant that many on the left continued to feel that they had to “take sides”. It was in this context that John Lewis offered a defence of the “justified” use of “compulsion by a “constitutionally elected Socialist government” and qualified but “globally positive” picture of Stalin in laying the ‘foundations’ of socialism. (10)

It was not just on the Communist Party that people believed that some kind of ‘jump’ into a different social system, socialism, had taken place in the years following the October Revolution. The existence of the USSR, followed by China and other ‘socialist states’ was considered part of the progressive development of history. This held even for those who considered that the Soviet regime was “deformed” or “degenerated”. This thinking continues to inform many in the orthodox Trotskyist movement, which has had almost as may difficulties coming to terms with the collapse of Official Communism as its Stalinist opponents.

The Linear History that the USSR Failed to Follow.

One interpretation of Marxism, which goes back to Engels, is that modes of production exist in a “linear” schema”. In this view the USSR was a society in “transition” through forms of collective ownership, and a socialist transformation of social relations, towards a new mode of production, communism. This was accepted even by many of those who criticised the way this change was enforced by a party bureaucracy. By the revolutionary advance to power by a proletarian party, the Bolsheviks began the transformation of the relations of production and distribution by the exercise of workers’ power.

From a variety of standpoints a “detour” back towards capitalism could only happen by a “counter-revolution”, that is in terms not far off the CPB’s broad analysis. Marcel Van der Linden’s Western Marxists and the Soviet Union (2007) describes this as the “unilinear” approach: once you began this “world historic break”, a new social trajectory (social ownership of the means of production you were embarked on a voyage. How it fared was up to those in control of the helm. But the trip had started.

Outside of this consensus a miniature galaxy of critical left wing theories on the nature of the Soviet Union which was built, including those who challenged the premise of this assertion, that Lenin’s Bolsheviks ever embodied the interests or the views or the working class.

However, as der Linden describes, the unilinear approach faded away for other reasons. Gradually the ‘sequence”, or proceeding along a line, picture of the USSR as undergoing a ‘stage’ in world history, not least “towards” anything at all, had been eroded. And study after study shed light on the social and economic reality of the state and its satellites were written, as literary and historical studies of the Gulag appeared, the magic of a new world had evaporated. The determination in the last instance was economic, “Increasingly dominant in all currents of thought became the idea that the Soviet Union had embodied a model of economic growth which, although it had initially been successful using extensive methods of industrialisation and extra-economic coercion, could not maintain its economic and military position in the competition with ‘globalising’ world capitalism, because of growing inefficiencies and the absence of a transition to intensive growth.” (11) Eric Hobsbawm expressed a similar thought more directly, “The tragedy of the October revolution was that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism. (12)

Labour Totalitarians?

One can criticise the CPB for its failure to come to terms with more than the surface difficulties which were, by the time the Soviet Union collapse, no secret. One can attack their inability to see that there was more at stake than “errors” and authoritarian rule that is commands on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism or arbitrary legal producers. It is right to deny them the comfort of believing that they were serving the cause of the future, a location in which communism is to come. But one thing they cannot be accused of it is complete blindness.

Andrew Murray, until recently a member of the CPB, and now, it is said, a key Labour actor, is one of those, one can assume targeted by Cohen. But is he culpable of endorsing the Soviet Union’s totalitarian terror? This is not the case. Murray written of the Stalinist period, “The killing of former oppositionists is now known to have been a small part of a very much larger and more horrifying operation.” And, “Stalin was both greater and more terrible than Trotsky knew. He is long since indicted with vast crimes” (13).

The difficulty is, and remains there, is that Murray, reflecting a view expressed many times elsewhere, also observes, “The USSR won the war and Stalin emerged stronger than ever, with socialism spreading to half of Europe and much of Asia, perhaps the most significant of the many circumstances which left Trotskyism without Trotsky stillborn as a major political movement.” (Ibid) It is not Trotskyism to comment that until the CPB and those still wrapped in its way of thinking that calls such states ‘socialist’. You can indeed can them anything you like, you can invent, he suggests a “new political vocabulary”. But but very few are going to want to admire, still less emulate, these ‘socialist’ regimes or their legacy, today. (14)


(1) The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the legacy of the Soviet Union. Dr Evan Smith.  Hatful of History.
(2) Britain’s Road to Socialism. 8th Edition. 2011.
(3) Page 41.The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Robert Griffiths and Ben Stevenson. Communist Party History Group. 2010.
(4) The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the legacy of the Soviet Union.
(5) Page 15. The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Op Cit.
(6) Page 16. The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Op cit.
(7) Page 26.The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Op cit.
(8) Britain’s Road to Socialism. 8th Edition. 2011.
(9) Page 221 The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union 1929 – 1941. Paul Flewers. Francis Boule. 2008. To illustrate this point further a key text from an early Menshevik critic of Lenin, Fedor Il’ich Dan’s Two years of Wandering, (1922) has only recently appeared in English (translated by Francis King. 2016). Some other important works, such as the first hand account of the rise of the Stalinist system, published in French by the dissident leftist circle round Boris Souvarine, notably Vers l”autre flamme après seize mois dans l”U.R.S.S., Panaït Istrati.(1929) remain largely unknown in the English speaking world
(10) Page 79. Socialism and the Individual. Lawrence and Wishart. 1961.
(11) Page 303. Marcel Van der Linden. Western Marxism and the Soviet Union. Brill. 2007.
(12) Page 498. Eric Hobsbawm. Age of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century 1914 – 1991. Abacus 1994.
(13) Trotsky on Stalin. Andrew Murray. October 2016.

(14) For some of the many reasons, the tragic wrecked lives in the former Soviet Union given voice in Second-hand time : the last of the Soviets. Aleksievich, Svetlana. (Translated by Shayevich, Bela). Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.


Written by Andrew Coates

December 20, 2017 at 3:10 pm

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