Communist Party of Great Britain
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The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was active from 1920 to 1991 and through most of that time was the biggest communist party in the United Kingdom. It published the theoretical journal Marxism Today and was closely linked to the daily newspaper The Morning Star.
Since its dissolution, the name has been used by a Leninist faction also known as the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) founded in 1981; this is a separate organisation. It should also not be confused with Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) founded in 2004; the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist) founded in 1968 (which despite its name was Maoist and pro-Enver Hoxha); the orthodox Marxist-Leninist faction Communist Party of Britain founded in 1988; the Stalinist New Communist Party of Britain (founded in 1977); or several other similar-named organisations. If in doubt, it's customary to use date of foundation (and possibly dissolution) to disambiguate, although knowing the name of their newspaper is often useful.
- J. T. Murphy of the Shop Stewards' Movement in Sheffield, one of many early CPGB members to come from the Socialist Labour Party
- Arthur Horner, formerly of the South Wales Miners' Unofficial Reform Movement and a follower of Irish socialist and nationalist James Connolly
- Harry Pollitt, chairman from 1929, and earlier a trade unionist who had helped organise a 1919 strike to prevent Britain sending arms to anti-revolutionary forces in the USSR
- R. Palme Dutt, a leading intellectual figure of Indian and Swedish parentage, who had been jailed as a conscientious objector in World War One.
Initially many members advocated close links with the recently founded Labour Party, but in the wake of the Zinoviev letter and widespread anticommunist paranoia, membership of the CPGB was proscribed by the Labour leadership. Its youth wing the Young Communist League was founded in 1921.
It managed to get a small number of MPs and councillors soon after formation, including in Scotland and London. John W T Newbold was communist MP for Motherwell from 1922-3, and CPGB member Shapurji Saklatvala represented Battersea North for the Labour Party in 1922-23 before standing as a communist in 1923 and remaining in Parliament until 1929. The party received 7.5% of the vote in 1931. William Gallacher was a Communist MP in the coal-mining area of West Fife from 1935 to 1950. Later, CPGB member Wogan Philipps, 2nd Baron Milford, sat in the House of Lords, from 1962 to his death in 1993, although he frequently argued for the chamber's abolition. However, the party never achieved the mass popular following or electoral success of other European communist parties such as in France and Italy, and remained insignificant on the left in comparison to the British Labour Party, despite its desires to establish a mass movement.
In January 1930, the party helped launch the Daily Worker (later The Morning Star) as a vehicle for its ideas. In 1936, publisher Victor Gollancz founded the Left Book Club, a key vehicle for spreading Marxist and Communist ideas, in close association with Pollitt. it published Daily Worker journalist John Ross Campbell's Soviet Policy and its Critics, a defence of Stalin's show trials. While Gollancz was campaigning for abolition of the death penalty in the UK, he was supporting Stalin hanging all his enemies, real and imagined.
World War Two
In the late 30s the party supported a "Two Wars" policy of real war against fascism and struggle at home against capitalism, and was involved in sending International Brigades to the the Spanish Civil War. But in 1939 Stalin suddenly entered an alliance with Hitler and instructions came from Moscow to oppose World War Two, which wasn't a good look for an anti-fascist party. Campbell and Pollitt both supported the war, Pollitt speaking in support of Poland, but they were forced to resign and were replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt as general secretary and William Rust as editor of the Daily Worker; the party adopted an anti-war line with Pollitt agreeing to shut up in the interests of projecting an image of party unity.
Nonetheless the British government decided not to proscribe it during the war, not wishing to alienate trade unions and workers. But following Hitler's attack on Stalin it suddenly became super pro-war and with new Britain's alliance with Stalin the CPGB did better, with membership peaking at 52,000 in 1942.
At this time there were vicious disputes between the pro-Stalin CPGB and the Trotskyite Workers International League, going back to early in the war when the CPGB had supported Stalin's alliance with Hitler: in 1942, after Stalin changed sides, William Wainwright of the CPGB penned a broadside against the Trotskyite Socialist Appeal called "Clear Out Hitler’s agents!" which claimed "Trotsky’s men are Hitler’s men." The Workers International League responded, saying of the CPGB: "Their policy is completely dependent upon the pacts that Stalin signs and not upon the needs of the British or International Working Class"; WIL members went on to form the first incarnation of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944.
After the war, its membership declined. The Cold War put restrictions on communists serving in trade unions. Various crises involving the USSR also had a negative effect: the crushing of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the dispute in the Soviet Communist Party over Stalin's legacy. In the 70s and 80s there were fierce debates between a reformist, Gramscian, Eurocommunist contingent and the traditionalist Leninists and Stalinists, after Russia and then China moved away from traditional Leninism.
In 1968, in the midst of revolutions across Europe, a traditionalist faction led by Roy Birch left, becoming the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist). Since the death of Stalin and Khrushchev's subsequent denunciation of Stalin, there had been growing tensions between those who supported the Soviet reformists (who, it must be remembered, sent in tanks against the Prague Spring) and those even more extreme leftists who sided with Mao in defence of Stalin: the CPBML were with Mao and Stalin. They also supported Enver Hoxha, and briefly pivoted to back the Soviet Union in the mid 80s before Gorbachev ruined things. Remarkably they and their newsletter Workers (formerly The Worker) survived into the 2020s. Another Maoist group, the Communist Party of England (CPE-ML), was formed in 1972, later becoming the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist). And another split in 1977 led by Sid French produced the pro-USSR New Communist Party of Britain.
Tension between the traditional Leninists and reformists continued into the 1980s, as the Soviet Union became ever more moribund and then under Gorbachev moved away from communism. The traditionalists believed in violent revolution and vanguardism and the Marxist view of history, and were very good at ignoring the crimes of Stalin and his successors. The reformists, often known as Eurocommunists, were influenced by western European communist parties which worked closely with trade unions and represented workers' interests by contesting elections and getting a reasonable number of votes (as in France and Italy); they also believed more in democracy and success at the ballot box rather than waiting for violent revolution, and were thus considered revisionists or worse by the orthodox Leninists.
There was some progressive politics coming out of the CPGB. Party member Henry Gunter was prominent in campaigning against racism in Britain in the 1950s, including the groundbreaking A Man's a Man: A Study of the Colour Bar in Birmingham. Mark Ashton, general secretary of the party's youth wing the Young Communist League, was a prominent LGBT activist in the 1980s and co-founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the 1984-85 miners' strike.
In the mid 1980s the reformist Eurocommunist wing (including Martin Jacques and Eric Hobsbawm) were in charge at the party's journal Marxism Today, alongside prominent New Left thinker Stuart Hall who was never a CPGB member, and they set up a group called New Times promoting what they called "realistic Marxism". This wing grew close to the Labour Party, with some party members including Eric Hobsbawn later advising or working for Tony Blair.
The orthodox Marxist–Leninist members left in 1988 to form the Communist Party of Britain, which surprisingly outlasted both the Soviet Union and the CPGB. The CPB had 900 members in 2018, under the leadership of Robert Griffiths, but also control of The Morning Star newspaper.
After the Leninists left, the remaining Eurocommunists in the CPGB basically gave up, disbanding in 1991. Following its demise, members moved in various directions. Some traditionalists joined the Communist Party of Britain (the Marxist-Leninist group which split from the CPGB in 1988). Some on the reformist wing started Democratic Left, a Eurocommunist party committed to democratic socialism which rejected the traditional hierarchical and dogmatic nature of the CPGB. In Scotland, the Communist Party of Scotland was founded in 1992. Others became deeply involved with the Labour Party: Marxism Today journalist Geoff Mulgan became Prime Minister Blair's director of policy. Democratic Left dissolved as a political party in 1998, although Democratic Left Scotland persisted.
After the death of Wogan Philipps in 1993, the last remaining communist to hold political office in the UK was Fife miner and trade union official Willie Clarke, who served as a councillor for Ballingry from 1974 until 2016, initially for the CPGB and later as an independent (after the demise of the CPGB he joined the Communist Party of Scotland but stood as an independent).
The extent of its links to the Soviet Union are debated. It initially had a close relationship with Comintern, the international communist organisation based in Moscow. In the 1920s the UK was seen as a priority, due to its key role in the world, with Lenin reportedly providing £55,000 to the party. The Bolsheviks' dreams of world revolution were rapidly scaled down under Stalin as the USSR focused on "Socialism in One Country", and Comintern functioned less as a worldwide revolutionary organisation and more as an aid committee for the Soviet Union. Stalin disbanded it in 1943 to appease Churchill and Roosevelt, and after that the relationship between the CPGB and USSR becomes more obscure and contested.
It was infiltrated and monitored in great detail by MI5, the British government agency charged with monitoring subversives and radicals. In the 1920s the Industrial Intelligence Bureau, an organisation of business leaders, worked with MI5's Maxwell Knight to begin infiltration. One of the most successful agents was Olga Grey who joined the party in 1931. Close surveillance of CPGB in the 1940s is contrasted with the lax attitude to Oswald Mosley who didn't have his mail opened despite having Adolf Hitler attend his wedding. This was despite the fact that the CPGB was a legal organisation not obviously involved in any criminal or treasonous activity; it isn't clear whether this surveillance was on the initiative of MI5 itself or following instructions from the Home Secretaries who nominally oversaw its work. Between the 1950s and 1970s, up to 60 MI5 staff were involved in surveillance of the party, claiming to have identified most party members, and with one MI5 director-general telling the Home Office "we [have] the British Communist Party pretty well buttoned up".
As well as the party leadership mentioned, the CPGB has some members who had success in other fields:
- Beatrix Campbell, feminist journalist, joined in the 1960s, dissenting over Prague but remaining in the party through the 1970s.
- David Guest, mathematician killed fighting in Spain for the International Brigades; member of Young Communist League.
- Eric Heffer, later a labour MP, left in the late 1940s.
- Eric Hobsbawm, acclaimed historian, was a long-time party member although increasingly distanced from the party as a supporter of Eurocommunism and the Labour Party, and becoming a confidante of Tony Blair.
- Arnold Wesker, playwright, who resigned in 1956 over Hungary.
Timeline of communism in the UK
- 1917: Russian revolution
- 1920: Foundation of Communist Party of Great Britain
- 1939: Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; start of World War Two
- 1944: Trotskyite first incarnation of the Revolutionary Communist Party formed.
- 1956: Crushing of Hungarian uprising
- 1968: Crushing of Prague Spring
- 1968 Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist) founded as an orthodox group by ex-CPGB members, led by Reg Birch, who was chairman until his death in 1994.
- 1972: Maoist Communist Party of England (CPE-ML) founded (later renamed Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist)), influenced by Hardial Bains. Members included British avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew.
- 1974: Stalinist and anti-imperialist Revolutionary Communist Group (UK) formed, splitting from International Socialists (later Socialist Workers Party).
- 1977: Stalinist New Communist Party of Britain splits from Communist Party of Great Britain.
- 1978: Another Revolutionary Communist Party, another offshoot of the International Socialists; this one founded Living Marxism then everyone became incredibly right-wing and worked for Spiked. Prior to the RCP's formulation it was briefly known as the Revolutionary Communist Group (1974), founded to oppose all compromise and coalitions, and Revolutionary Communist Tendency (1976).
- 1979: Communist Party of England (CPE-ML) rejects Mao in favour of Enver Hoxha and becomes Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist)
- 1981: Formation of Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) to defend Leninist orthodoxy, around The Leninist journal.
- 1988: Following arguments between reformist and orthodox wings in the Communist Party of Great Britain, the orthodox members leave to form the Communist Party of Britain.
- 1989: Berlin Wall comes down.
- 1991: Communist Party of Great Britain disbands, with Eurocommunists forming Democratic Left.
- 1992: Communist Party of Scotland formed, with members including trade unionist Mick McGahey (earlier a CPGB member). It faded away some time before 2020.
- 2004: Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) founded.
Other far-left: dates are of founding unless otherwise noted. (Many of these are usually described as Trotskyite, which can mean anything from democratic socialist to essentially Stalinist but with more plans to take over the world.)
- Socialist Labour Party (1903) - split from Social Democratic Federation; led by H.L. Hyndman, influenced by key Industrial Workers of the World idealogue Daniel De Leon. Most members joined the CPGB soon after its formation, but the SLP didn't disband until 1980.
- International Socialists (1962) - see Socialist Workers Party.
- Socialist Workers Party (1977) - Trotskyite, formed out of the Socialist Review Group (1950) which became the International Socialists (1962).
- Militant (1964) - Trotskyite group initially organised around the Militant newsletter, attempted entryism of the UK Labour Party in the 1980s.
- Solidarity (2006) - Trotskyite, Scottish, established by Tommy Sheridan.
- Communist Party of Great Britain: History Section, Marxists Internet Archive
- Communist Party of Great Britain website, GPGB (PCC)
- Communist Party of Great Britain: Who We Are, GPGB (PCC)
- The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, James Eaden and David Renton, Palgrave, 2002, part online at Springer
- Notable Individuals of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Kevin Morgan, British Online Archives, 20 Jan 2020
- The Communist Party of Great Britain, John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, 1997
- The membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920–1945, Andrew Thorpe, The Historical Journal, 43, 3 (2000)
- Within and beyond the law? British communist history and the archives of state surveillance, Kevin Morgan, Political Extremism and Radicalism in the Twentieth Century, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2018
- Squaring the Circle : the Extreme Left and the Labour Party, Jeremy Tranmer, Revue Lisa, Vol 7 No 8, 2014, https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.7110
- Clear Out Hitler's Agents, William Wainwright, 1942, with an introduction by Ted Crawford, August 2001. Marxists Internet Archive
- Clear Out the Bosses’ Agents!!, Workers International League, 1942. Marxists Internet Archive
- About Us, Communist Party of Britain Marxist–Leninist website
- Henry Gunter and the Campaign for Equality, The Iron Room, Library of Birmingham, October 5, 2016
- The real-life triumphs of the gay communist behind hit movie Pride, The Guardian, 21 September 2014
- From "Old Left" to "New Labour"? Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of "Realistic Marxism", Herbert Pimlott, Labour / Le Travail, Vol. 56 (Fall, 2005), pp. 175-197 (23 pages), Canadian Committee on Labour History
- Eric Hobsbawm, Marxist who advised Blair, dies at 95, Evening Standard, 1 October 2012
- Behind Marxism Today: Martin Jacques Interview, Martin Jacques and Louise Connor, Australian Left Review, 1(95), 1986, 12-15.
- Stuart Hall, Spartacus Educational
- Still flying the red flag, The Independent, 6 Oct 2011
- Britain’s last-remaining Communists believe their victory over capitalism is still to come, Etan Smallman, i News, April 17, 2018
- Gordon Brown hails the 'remarkable life' of Scotland's last communist councillor, Central Fife Times, 15th November 2019
- The Infiltrator and the Movement, Connor Woodman, Jacobin, April 2018
- Eric Hobsbawm's dangerous reputation, The Guardian, 17 Jan 2019
- Reg Birch obituary, The Independent, 16 June 1994
- Life after Living Marxism: Fighting for freedom - to offend, outrage and question everything, The Guardian, 8 July 2000
- Socialist Labour Party, Spartacus Educational
- Tommy Sheridan eyes comeback as Solidarity signs up with new Holyrood Yes party, The Herald (Glasgow), 21 Sep 2020