The Communist Party, in my recollection of it (I left the Party in 1956), was singularly free of what are known, in more conventional political formations, as ‘rows’.footnote Succession struggles of a kind endemic in social-democratic parties were unknown, and indeed for the first ten years of its existence the Party had nothing resembling a Party leader. Political differences, so far from being envenomed by personal rivalries—the normal condition of the Labour Party—were suppressed for the sake of comradeship. If there were political divisions on the Executive Committee, the members did not know about them, nor would it have been conceivable for confidential reports to be leaked to the capitalist press—something which passes without comment today.footnote1 Party proceedings, by comparison with those in the Labour Party, were exceedingly decorous. Leaders were not in the habit of claiming that they had been stabbed in the back (a melodrama latterly as common on the left of the Labour Party as it used to be on the right), they did not stage premeditated tantrums at the rostrum or walk off conference platforms in a huff, nor were delegates accustomed to yelling abuse from the floor. ‘Pride’, Deutscher remarks in his political biography of Stalin, ‘is not a Bolshevik virtue’.footnote2

The melodramatics of Communism had to do with abnegation rather than self-advertisement. Typically they took place offstage—in closed circles of initiates where comrades engaged in ‘self-criticism’; in the still watches of the night when they struggled with dissident thoughts;footnote3 in bare rooms with fraying linoleum where disciplinary hearings were held; or at bureaus and desks where expulsion letters were typed. Even more inconspicuous were those processes of ostracism and exclusion experienced by the member whose conduct was frowned upon or whose loyalty was in question—the ‘politically unreliable’. My mother, a loyalist until she left the Party in 1956, recalls the traumatic cashiering of a comrade in Slough. Joe,footnote4 who she thinks may have been branch secretary at the time, was ‘very genuine’, ‘always an optimist’, ‘a keen trade unionist’. But he failed to carry out the Party line—possibly, my mother thinks, in relation to a local strike (at the time all the Party’s efforts were devoted to boosting war production). The Branch Committee had wanted to let him resign on grounds of ill-health, but ‘District’ insisted on sending someone down to try him for ‘political incompetence’. My mother remembers it as ‘the most harrowing experience . . . a lot of other people felt the same. We had to agree to it, but deep down we were on Joe’s side.’ Joe himself, a West-country man with an army background (he had been a regular soldier) accepted his punishment without protest. ‘Easy-going’ and ‘good natured’—as he is remembered by the leader of the Slough Partyfootnote5—he took up work again as a rank-and-filer.

There were no such things as majorities and minorities in the Party, but rather, on all occasions, the appearance of a general will. Decisions, however they were arrived at, were by definition ‘collective’. Resolutions at Party Congress were adopted unanimously, executives re-elected en bloc. In Party Committees, or branch meetings, matters were seldom put to the vote, at conferences the key decisions were settled beforehand or referred to the Control Commission.footnote6 Internal differences—such as those which wracked the Stepney Party in 1935–6 over the relative priority of ‘street’ or ‘trade-union’ work—were settled by the intervention of or an appeal to higher authority: in this case ‘London District’.footnote7

Branch meetings were not places to ‘thrash out’ differences, still less for that constitutional nit-picking which is the bane (or delight) of a Labour gmc. They were concerned rather with ‘checking up’ on decisions, and ‘involving’ the membership in Party work. They served not as an arena for debate, but rather—in a hostile environment—as a kind of refuge from politics itself: in the period of the Cold War, a branch meeting was the one place where you did not have to stand your ground and fight. They were, as I recall them, formal, almost ritualized affairs, at which reports were given by the leading comrades in the branch, and work allocated in the light of the current ‘drive’. If difficulties were raised, members would be only too anxious to search for common ground, to ‘build’ on points of agreement, to offer ‘constructive’ criticism. The authoritative figure who closed the proceedings would want to end on a ‘positive’ note. Much the same was true of perorations at borough aggregates or district congresses: if the Party was ‘lagging behind the masses’—a favourite self-lacerating complaint which always went down well—there were thousands waiting to hear our ‘message’.

The principle of unity, it must be admitted (especially by those, like the present writer, who regret its absence), was indissolubly linked to that of authority. Members had an untroubled ‘faith’ in the leadership. They regarded the Party’s lightest actions as an embodiment of collective will. Party ‘rulings’ were accepted as a matter of course, Party decisions executed irrespective of the means by which they had been arrived at.footnote8 The Party left no conceptual space for any division of interest between the leadership and the rank and file. In principle all Party members were co-workers and enjoyed equality of esteem. All were encouraged to regard themselves as irreplaceable. ‘In a Communist Party’, wrote Dutt and Pollitt in their Report on Organisation (1922), ‘there is no rank and file. Every member has some special qualification which can be used in some sphere of the Party’s work.footnote9 Since, moreover, according to Party thought—monist on matters of strategy and tactics no less than on laws of development—there could be only one ‘correct line’, it followed that discussion must inevitably produce consensus. As a 1957 training manual puts it, in a Panglossian account of democratic centralism:

The Party is a unity of leaders, leading bodies and members. There is no antagonism between democracy and centralism in the operation of democratic centralism in the Communist Party. Past mistakes in the direction of over-emphasizing centralism at the expense of democracy were recognized at the Twenty-Fifth (Special) Congress [Easter 1957] and steps outlined for their elimination. Nor is there in the Communist Party the situation which exists in the Labour Party, that of two trends, a rank and file fighting for socialist policies in constant conflict with right-wing leadership. In the Communist Party members and leaders—at all levels—have the same interests and aims, base their activities on the common acceptance of the principles of Marxism-Leninism, constitute a unity which is the Communist Party. There is no contradiction between the leaders, the leading bodies and the members. The members elect the leaders to lead and the leaders are responsible to the members who elect them. If bureaucratic methods are found anywhere in our Party, both leaders and members are equally interested in removing them. Nobody in the Communist Party has a stake in leading positions or an interest in maintaining bureaucracy and bad methods of work. All, members and leaders, are alike interested in waging the common, united struggle for socialism. The principles of democratic centralism are the firm effective basis on which that struggle can alone be organised.footnote10

The Party allowed no conceptual space, either, for dissent, not even in the form of ‘private’ judgement. ‘Freedom of criticism’ had long ago been stigmatized by Lenin as an invitation to ‘confusion’ and ‘vacillation’ ‘perverting people’s minds’footnote11 and it was construed by British Communists in a similarly negative sense—a ‘free advocacy . . . of petit bourgeois views . . . hitting at the very foundations of the Party’.footnote12 The only acceptable criticism was criticism which ‘strengthened’ the Party rather than weakened it, ‘honest criticism’ as opposed to criticism that was ‘hostile’ and ‘destructive’.footnote13 Differences, so far from being pushed to polarizing extremes, were apt to be displaced on to secondary objects—nuances in the interpretation of the line or questions of Party ‘tactics’. Opposition, as if fearful of recognising itself, was apt to adopt the terminology of its adversary, and to appear in the guise of ultraorthodoxy, so that the two came to bear an uncanny resemblance to one another (one reason why Marxist-Leninist divisions have always appeared esoteric to the outsider). Continuous opposition was unthinkable, not only a diversion from the struggle but also, according to Party doctrine still in force today,footnote14 undemocratic—an attempt by the minority to subvert the will of the majority. The reasoning is set out in the 1957 training manual: