The Communist Party of Great Britain is in the throes of a severe crisis. Political scissions and antagonisms between different tendencies, struggles for control of the Party machine and its publications, expulsions of leading militants, forced suspension of the work of major structures present a dramatic spectacle of disarray. The crisis not only throws the party’s future role and significance into question, but casts a sharp light on shifts in the British left as a whole. The past three years have seen a wave of questioning of existing conceptions of socialist advance, but no development of new or credible alternatives. The leadership of the Communist Party has moved sharply to the right, but has split its own organization in doing so. The leadership of the Labour Party has—so far more successfully—rallied significant sections of its membership, a few years ago identified with the Left, to a CentreRight politics reminiscent of Wilson’s epoch. These developments have been intimately inter-connected. For the nature and evolution of the cpgb have never been separate from their setting in the labour movement as a whole.
Unlike its counterparts in many other European countries, Britain’s Communist party has always been small in comparison with social democracy, ever since its foundation in 1920. The Labour Party, profoundly reformist in its conception and structure, has continued to dominate working-class and socialist politics, playing a role within the bourgeois order that reflects its basis in Britain’s economistic and conservative trade union movement. It is this contradictory relationship—‘great mass organizations without socialism, small socialist groups without the masses’—which was the fundamental ‘problem facing those who set out to form a Communist Party in Britain’ in 1920. footnote1 It has been the problem of the Communist Party ever since. At the same time, however, the influence of the cpgb has often been out of all proportion to its numbers, and Communists have repeatedly won leading positions in the trade unions, in community struggles and in progressive campaigns. For long the Party was also the major force for Marxist education and theoretical research in Britain. It sought to combine organization around immediate issues with a wider programme of socialist transition and broad internationalism. The Party probably achieved its greatest influence in the 1930s and 1940s, when mobilization around anti-fascist issues was combined with agitation amongst the unemployed and, subsequently, growing strength in the trade unions. British Communists later played a significant role in co-ordinating resistance to the Heath Government, culminating in the latter’s defeat in 1974.
At the outset the cpgb conceived itself as a Marxist party advocating revolutionary socialism, but its long-term strategy has always recognized the importance of Parliamentary work and the advantages of affiliating to the Labour Party. The Party’s founding conference strongly endorsed electoral work as one component in the struggle for socialism, although there was some significant opposition to this. footnote2 Up to 1951 the Party combined acceptance of parliamentary interventions with a commitment to a revolutionary strategy for building a ‘Soviet Britain’, a workers’ democracy based on soviets. In 1951, however, long before the Eurocommunism of the seventies, the new Party programme, entitled ‘The British Road to Socialism’, marked a departure from this perspective. An independent transition to socialism was now to be achieved by the election of a Left government, drawn from the Labour and Communist Parties, and supported by wide extra-Parliamentary mobilizations. Though Parliament thus came to have a strategic rather than purely tactical place in Communist thinking, the Party’s perspective was still based on the potential for class struggle, on the prospect of winning working-class control of the state, and on the necessity of suppressing capitalism.
The founding conference also decided, by a narrow majority, to seek affiliation to the Labour Party.
Although the ruling bodies of the Labour Party have always rebuffed such approaches, with varying degrees of hostility, Communists have been widely accepted as legitimate
The last major upheaval in the cpgb was provoked by the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 and did not concern strategy for Britain. The present crisis, by contrast, has been the consequence of a major push over the past decade, and more recently from within the leadership itself, to change the Party’s strategy in Britain. According to this re-think, the Conservative election victories of 1979 and 1983 require Communists to seek the broadest alliances for the overriding goal of defeating ‘Thatcherism’. Policy commitments or social struggles which might upset potential anti-Thatcher allies must be abandoned, and a new attitude must be cultivated towards Labour leaders of the Centre or Right which downgrades ties with the Labour Left. Indeed, the cp leadership’s pre-occupation with electoral considerations and combinations is now bidding to become an absolute, with a consequent sacrifice of the party’s historic commitment to anti-capitalist industrial militancy, to the fostering of a socialist and revolutionary consciousness, and to a concern with internationalist solidarity with struggles against imperialism. Both the new line, and the emergence of resistance to it, have taken time to develop and only gradually has it become clear how fundamental are the issues at stake. The crisis has become particularly acute since the Party’s 1983 Congress. A new phase was marked in May 1985, when the leadership called a special congress to reverse this trend, securing the endorsement of its platform by a ratio of approximately two to one and the election of a new executive committee purged of the few remaining dissidents.