The schism in British Communism, like many of those in Marxist political formations, resembles nothing so much as a war of ghosts in which the living actors are dwarfed by the spectres they conjure up. The debate on the ‘British way’—the major issue at the 1977 Congress when the present schism first emerged—echoes the never-resolved debate on ‘parliamentism’ which nearly paralysed the cpgb at birth; while the argument for the ‘broad democratic alliance’ mirrors the turn from the ‘class against class’ politics of the Comintern’s Third Period (1928–34) to those of the Popular Front—an analogy which has been strenuously promoted by the supporters of Eurocommunism.
Both sides in the present dispute are anxious to prove their legitimacy by reference to the Communist past. As in a family romance, each lays claim to an imaginary ancestry and indulges in fantasies of re-birth. As in a family break-up, the quarrel is envenomed by old sores. Indeed, the fear and loathing which now threaten to engulf the Party seem to have more to do with the traumas of the past than with more tangible divisions, in the present, over policy. Thus the Morning Star supporters—for the most part, it seems, ageing trade union loyalists—appear in an altogether more sinister hue when they are labelled by their opponents ‘Tankies’ (i.e., defenders of the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia). Similarly the supporter, of Marxism Today—a coalition of repentant Althusserians, disenchanted loyalists and born-again social democrats, engaged in a rather desperate attempt to keep the good ship ‘Communism’ afloat—appear as liquidators, class collaborationists or even (as I have been informed by one old-timer) ‘enemy agents’. Above all there is the haunting shadow of ‘Stalinism’, which seems to exercise a terror roughly akin to that of Thermidor in the Russian Party disputes of the 1920s. It is perhaps indicative of its continuing potency—as also of the enormous gulf which still separates British Communism from more conventional political formations—that at a recent meeting of the Party Executive, a leading items on the agenda was a demand for the rehabilitation of Zinoviev and Kamenev, the old Bolsheviks executed after the Moscow Trials.
The Marxism Today faction, though proclaimedly ‘modernizers’, nevertheless cleave in their own way to traditional Party verities. A remarkable number are second-generation Communists—among them the editors of Marxism Today and Seven Days and their most gifted writer, Beatrix Campbell—anxious to affirm a filial loyalty. The name of Gramsci is invoked to dignify their project and in their more intoxicated moments they see themselves as engaged in creating a new historic bloc. Like their hardline opponents, they cling to the antique Communist belief that, a ‘correct’ analysis, faithfully followed, will bring the required results; like Communists of old their self-image is first and foremost as strategists, masterminding ‘realignment’ on the Left, architects, in the trade union movement, of a ‘new realism’, ‘hegemonic’ in their vision where the Labour Party is merely ‘corporatist’, pacemakers and path-finders for the British Left.
The Party, too, for all its gestures towards pluralism, appears very much as a chip off the old block, seeing itself as the epicentre of the political universe—‘the key strategic and coherent force on the Left’, in the words of one of its new wave leaders, ‘the special ingredient so necessary for the British labour movement’ according to a veteran. Totemic importance is attached to its long-term programme, The British Road to Socialism—‘the most comprehensive strategy for the Left in Britain’—despite its origins in now suspect notions of ‘People’s Democracy’. ‘Democratic centralism’ is strictly insisted upon, being used not only to expel individual dissidents but, in the case of London and Lancashire, to dissolve entire Party districts. The Party continues to despatch fraternal delegations and to take comfort from the success (or relative success) of brother or sister parties. (The Japanese Party seems recently to have joined the Italian as a possible model.) The cpgb goes through
The Morning Star is much more openly retreatist, indeed ‘Ultramontane’ in its attachment to the Communist past. It views novelty of all kinds with suspicion, and builds a whole politics out of loyalties. Its profiles—a long series of them under the title ‘Our Tradition’ preceded the cpgb’s 1986 congress—conjure up the gods and gurus of the 1940s, the formative period, it seems, of the Morning Star’s trade union supporters, such as those around tass. It exhumes old Party watchwords—e.g., ‘Peace and Socialism’, restored to the masthead of the paper from the days of the capitalist encirclement, as if the two could still be treated as interchangeable. It popularizes Soviet diplomatic initiatives as if the British labour movement were still locked in struggle, as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, over ‘Socialist Foreign Policy’. Memento mori, a feature of the advertisement columns, serves as an affecting means of reaffirming old associations and dedication to the cause. Veterans—especially those who have recently been expelled from the Party—are given pride of place in the letter columns. So far from rejoicing in its new-found freedom from Party control, the newspaper cleaves to orthodoxies of its own making, observing a diplomatic silence on matters which its supporters might find divisive, such as civil nuclear power. Like Marxism Today, it practises its own version of ‘strategy’, sounding a ‘positive’ note in the face of setbacks and defeats, maintaining a statesman-like perspective, a kind of detachment, even on questions of the day before which Communism is powerless.
Interestingly, it is not the Russian question which has split the cpgb—the normal focus of division when there is a schism in Trotskyist ranks—nor yet, as in the cpgb’s anguished debates of 1956 and 1968, Soviet treatment of Eastern Europe, but rather the Condition-of-England question and in particular a kind of Communist reprise of those anxieties about ‘cloth cap’ socialism which have haunted the Labour Party ever since the revisionist debates of the late 1950s. There are no enthusiasts for ‘Solidarnosc’ in the Eurocommunist ranks, nor, so far as I know, have any of its representatives appeared at Marxism Today jamborees; on the other side of the divide, there is no Anglo–Afghan Friendship Society to defend the legitimacy of the Soviet invasion. The controversy has turned, rather, on the issue of ‘class politics’. Eurocommunism constituted itself, in the later 1970s, in the attack on ‘economism’ (i.e. wages militancy); it took shape in polemic with ‘workerism’, both in the Party’s own ranks and even more (if the argument of my article is correct) against tendencies in the Labour and trade union Left; insofar as it has found a constituency it is only to represent, at second or third remove, the ‘new social forces’.
The hatred and contempt with which each side treats the others—as also the bewilderment and distress of the silent majority of Party loyalists—seems now to exceed that in the Labour Party at the height of Bennism. In the Eurocommunist camp, as then on the Labour Left, it is typically expressed in generational terms—‘Why don’t you just die?’ was the shout of one of the new wave ‘pluralists’ when, at a recent aggregate, an old-timer attempted to speak. Whereas in previous Communist crises, such as those of 1939–40 or 1956, the factory branches remained solid or even increased in strength, while it was the ‘intellectuals’ who were then wracked by doubt, this time it is the industrial comrades who have been ready to put their Party loyalties in question. In their majority they seem to have rallied to the Morning Star. Trade unionists—‘white, male, middle-aged’, as they were recently characterized by the Party’s Industrial Organizer, after a week at the tuc—are no longer honoured in the Party but viewed with social and even sexual disgust. As in other political formations of the Left, political disagreement has been exacerbated by sociological discomforts which it seems increasingly difficult for a unitary organization to contain, and although the outcome is different in the Communist and the Labour Party, it does not seem fanciful to discern the same fissiparous forces at work: a simultaneous break-up of both class and corporate loyalties.