Palme, Mick and Harry

Enemy Within
March 10, 1995

Since both the Communist Party of Great Britain and that of the USSR have ceased to exist, it has become possible, though far from easy, to separate the history of British communism from the passions and prejudices of the era of religious wars in which it has been embedded for so long. Enemy Within, an agreeably brief book of some 230 pages, written in the handy prose of good journalism, goes far to prove the point, for it is published less than five years after the 71 years of the British CP's life (1920-91) ended.

Imagination and empathy, both political and psychological, are the book's main strengths. The author has been remarkably successful in understanding the revolutionary hopes of those who became communists after 1917, the absolute conviction of the 1930s - "no later generation has enjoyed the same political certainty'' (Denis Healey) - and the complex but virtually unbreakable bonds that linked the inter-war leaders, however conscious they were of the horrors of Stalinism, to the Soviet Union. Beckett is unusually good at catching the tone of leading individuals, whether those whom it is almost impossible not to admire or like - a Harry Pollitt or Mick McGahey - or those unusually resistant to outside sympathy - a Bill Rust for instance. He may even have penetrated the carapace of R. Palme Dutt. With the rarest exceptions - R. Page Arnot is one - all are treated with admirable if far from uncritical fairness. Denunciation is not to Beckett's taste.

The book is not, of course, "the full story'' its blurb announces. It is plainly not designed to be. The author's startling omission of all source references is unnecessarily modest, for it conceals his own additions to knowledge, based on some work in Moscow and on much interviewing of good first-hand sources. While he relies on the large historical literature, he provides new material on the last years of the party, and what is probably the first general conspectus of its financing during the periods of dependence on Moscow, ie from 1920 till the mid-1930s and from 1957 to 1979 or perhaps beyond. He is less illuminating about the decades of non-Soviet financing, about which he seems to know little. Still, though basically not original, this is a pretty sound narrative account of CP history, which can be recommended to anyone interested in 20th-century Britain, or in a rousing if ambiguous story full of human interest and high-profile "characters''. However, it will disappoint more serious historical readers.

Some important aspects of CPGB history do not interest the author at all, notably its "colonial'' work. The word India does not appear in the index, though the Indian CP, which long treated Dutt as its guru, was largely founded and initially provided with leaders by the CPGB. The British left dimension is essential to understanding the Nehru dynasty.

Others suffer because the author asks few of the comparative questions which the subject cries out for. How did the CPGB differ from other small (though often relatively larger) CPs overshadowed by dominant mass labour parties and movements -moderate, as in Denmark and Sweden, radical, as in Norway and Austria? Why did 1930s Britain, unlike the United States, lack a prominent body of Marxist but anti-Stalinist intellectuals, except perhaps for the small but distinguished expatriate Caribbean group? Indeed, some obvious questions remain curiously unanswered. Beckett makes much of the prominence of Scots and Jews in the party, but hardly notices the Welsh. No historian of Labour could plausibly forget them. Why the difference? Nowadays one might even expect some observations about women, who seem to have been less prominent in the CP, and perhaps proportionately less numerous than in the Labour Party.

Indeed, the relation between CP and Labour is more central than Beckett allows. It was one of complementarity not rivalry, at least once the CP abandoned the idiocies of "class against class'' with some relief in the early 1930s. It was then that it became, in effect, the school of industrial politics for all young shop-floor militants, including most who were to become national union leaders 30 years later. Paradoxically, it was helped by the curious bifurcation of the official Labour leadership. Bevin was not Morrison. Hardly any union discriminated against communists before the Cold War, whereas the Labour Party banned all contact with them. On the factory floor, therefore, union leaders who thought collective bargaining was the real business of the movement, found common ground with communists who could not have the option of becoming councillors or MPs, even had they wanted to.

Being more familiar with recent decades, the author is better on the fall of the CP than on its decline after 1956. The first is the loss of precisely those young shop-floor activists whom it had once attracted. By 1965 the typical shop steward or union negotiator was a man of 45-50. The CP union influence in the 1970s, which Beckett rightly stresses, was that of middle-aged and elderly men talking to others of their age-group.

The second was the educational revolution which put university degrees within the reach of the young who, in their father's generation would have got their education as apprentices in some engineering factory and party branch. The source of those artisan intellectuals who, as Enemy Within shows so clearly, formed the backbone of the CP, was running dry. The moment in the 1970s when the party could no longer find a bona fide proletarian good enough to take command of an industrial district and had to choose an ex-student instead, was the moment when the CP's roots were seen to wither. It had been, as Beckett sees very well, what Harry Pollitt called a party of "the men in the mine, the mill and the shipyard''. It proved incapable of finding a new constituency.

Still, if Beckett has left plenty of scope for the historiography of British communism to continue, he has written its story with understanding, critical distance, and a sense of the past. I doubt whether there is at present a more accessible and balanced introduction to the subject.

E. J. Hobsbawm is emeritus professor of economic and social history, University of London.

Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party

Author - Francis Beckett
ISBN - 0 7195 5310 0
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £19.99
Pages - 246pp

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