On 31st July, 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF).
It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Early members included Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Rose Cohen, Tom Mann, Ralph Bates, Winifred Bates, Rose Kerrigan, Peter Kerrigan, Bert Overton, Hugh Slater, Ralph Fox, Dave Springhill, William Mellor, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, George Aitken, Dora Montefiore, Sylvia Pankhurst and Robin Page Arnot. McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB.
Willie Paul argued strongly against the strategy suggested by Lenin that the CPGB should develop a close-relationship with the Labour Party. "We of the Communist Unity Group feel our defeat on the question of Labour Party affiliation very keenly. But we intend to loyally abide by the decision of the rank and file convention... The comrades who voted in favour of the Labour Party were undoubtedly influenced by the arguments put forth on this question by Lenin, Radek, and many other Russian Communists. We believe that these heroic comrades, in urging Labour Party affiliation, have erred on a question of tactics. But we frankly admit that the very fact that Lenin, Radek, Bukharin, and the others advise such a policy is a very good reason why a number of delegates thought we were perhaps in the wrong."
Guy Aldred was another who opposed this strategy. "Lenin's task compels him to compromise with all the elect of bourgeois society, whereas our task demands no compromise. And so we take different paths, and are only on the most distant speaking terms". He wrote later: "I have no objection to an efficient and centralised party so long as the authority rests in the hands of the rank and file, and all officials can be sacked at a moment's notice. But I want the centralism to be wished for and evolved by the local groups, a slow merging of them into one party, from the bottom upwards, as distinct from this imposition from the top downwards." Aldred went on to form the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF).
Albert Inkpin observed: "To me, as a silent participant, the National Convention amply justified those who, in the long and sometimes critical course of the unity discussions, held fast to negotiations in the belief that a way over the obstacles to unity would eventually present itself. Not the least striking feature of a remarkable gathering was the splendid manner in which the minority on the thorny subject of Labour Parity affiliation accepted the vote and showed their determination not to allow this minor question of tactics to be transformed into a fundamental question of principle. The Executive Committee, in considering the decision of the Convention, cannot fail to interpret the generous and tolerant spirit the majority undoubtedly feel towards the minority. The Communist Party is now a fact. Let us devote our energies and enthusiasm towards proving the Party, in numbers, vigour, and determination, worthy of the great and inspiring cause for which if stands. All power to the Communist Party of Great Britain."
Arthur McManus, who had been elected chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was impressed with the conference: "The Convention more than surpassed the best of my expectations. The feeling created was that, after all, everything involved in its preparation had been well worth while. ... The decisions were all well taken, and while I may have felt a pang of disappointment at being on the losing side on the Labour Party issue, I must say the battle was fought with healthy vigour and clean frankness, which augers well for the Communist Party."
William Gallacher was another revolutionary who was opposed to affiliation with the Labour Party. However, he changed his mind after meeting Lenin in Moscow. He later recalled: "It was on... the conception of the Party that the genius of Lenin had expressed itself... Before I left Moscow, I had an interview with Lenin during which he asked me three questions. Do you admit you were wrong on the question of Parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party? Will you join the CP when you return? Will you do your best to persuade your Scottish comrades to join it? To each of these questions I answered yes."
John R. Clynes, the leader of the Labour Party at the time, was also strongly opposed to working with the Communist Party of Great Britain: "In countries where no democratic weapon exists a class struggle for the enthronement of force by one class over other classes may be condoned, but in this country where the wage-earners possess 90 per cent of the voting power of the country agitation to use not the power which is possessed but some risky class dictatorship is a futile and dangerous doctrine."
Albert Inkpin was elected as National Secretary of the CPGB. Later that year he was prosecuted by the British authorities along with Bob Stewart, the National Organiser, for having printed and circulated Communist Party literature and was sentenced to six months in prison.
It is claimed that the CPGB had 2,500 members. Its attempts to affiliate with the Labour Party in 1921 ended in failure. A further attempt in 1922 was also unsuccessful.
Rajani Palme Dutt, Harry Pollitt and Albert Inkpin were charged with the task of implementing the organisational theses of the Comintern. As Jim Higgins has pointed out: "In the streamlined “bolshevised” party that came out of the re-organisation, all three signatories reaped the reward of their work. Inkpin was elected chairman of the Central Control Commission Dutt and Pollitt were elected to the party executive. Thus started the long and close association between Dutt and Pollitt. Palme Dutt, the cool intellectual with a facility for theoretical exposition, with friends in the Kremlin and Pollitt the talented mass agitator and organiser."
Shapurji Saklatvala became the party's candidate in North Battersea. His chances of victory increased significantly when his election agent, John Archer, persuaded the local Labour Party not to oppose Saklatvala. With the support of the Battersea Trades Council, Saklatvala won the seat in the 1922 General Election. In the 1923 General Election Saklatvala lost the seat to the Liberal Party candidate by 186 votes. However, he gained his revenge by beating the same candidate by 540 votes in the 1924 General Election.
On 4th August 1925, Tom Bell, Jack Murphy, Wal Hannington, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Harry Pollitt, Albert Inkpin, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, William Gallacher and John Campbell were arrested for being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and charged with violation of the Mutiny Act of 1797.
Tom Bell explained: "The indictment against the twelve read as follows: That between 1 January, 1924, and 21 October, 1925, the prisoners had: 1. Conspired to publish a seditious libel. 2. Conspired to incite to commit breaches of the Incitement to Mutiny Act, 1797. 3. Conspired to endeavour to seduce persons serving in His Majesty's forces to whom might come certain published books and pamphlets, to wit, the Workers' Weekly, and certain other publications mentioned in the indictment, and to incite them to mutiny."
The Communist Party of Great Britain decided that William Gallacher, John R. Campbell and Harry Pollitt should defend themselves. Tom Bell added: "their speeches were prepared, and approved by the Political Bureau (of the CPGB). To challenge the legality of the proceedings Sir Henry Slesser was engaged to defend the others. During the trial Judge Swift declared that it was "no crime to be a Communist or hold communist opinions, but it was a crime to belong to this Communist Party."
John Campbell later wrote: "The Government was wise enough not to rest its case on the activity of the accused in organising resistance to wage cuts, but on their dissemination of “seditious” communist literature, (particularly the resolutions of the Communist International), their speeches, and occasional articles. Campbell, Gallacher and Pollitt defended themselves. Five of the prisoners who had previous convictions, Gallacher, Hannington, Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust, were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment and the others (after rejecting the Judge’s offer that they could go free if they renounced their political activity) were sentenced to six months." It was believed that this was a deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the impending General Strike.
With Harry Pollitt in prison Bob Stewart was elected as acting General Secretary. He recalled: "This was a new role for me, and also in new conditions. Before, I was always one of those in jail looking out at the fight. Now I was outside and with a heavy responsibility. Thousands of branches of the Labour Party, the trade unions, hundreds of trades councils, poured in protests to the Home Office against the arrests and demanding the twelve be released."
At the time of the General Strike in 1926 the Communist Party had 10,730 members. In 1929 Harry Pollitt was elected as General Secretary of the CPGB. In the 1929 General Election the Labour Party refused to support Communist Party candidates. John Archer now became election agent to Stephen Sanders in North Battersea who easily defeated Shapurji Saklatvala.
Harry Pollitt was a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin in his attempts to purge the followers of Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union. In the Daily Worker on 12th March, 1936 Pollitt argued that the proposed trial of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin represented "a new triumph in the history of progress". Later that year all sixteen men were found guilty and executed.
William Gallacher went to Moscow to express his concerns about the Great Purge. He went to see Georgi Dimitrov who told him: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." Gallacher took this advice and remained a staunch Stalinist. He told his family that "not speaking the language and being shepherded about everywhere, it was hard to know what was really going on."
Rajani Palme Dutt used his journal, the Labour Monthly, to defend the Great Purge. As Duncan Hallas pointed out: "He repeated every vile slander against Trotsky and his followers and against the old Bolsheviks murdered by Stalin through the 1930s, praising the obscene parodies of trials that condemned them as Soviet justice".
On 8th August 1936, a group of doctors, medical students and nurses met in London to consider ways of sending medical help to Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Medical Association and addressed by Isabel Brown. As a result it was decided to form a Spanish Medical Aid Committee.
According to Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who was chosen to head British Medical Unit sent to Spain, the Communist Party of Great Britain played an important role in the establishment of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. In his autobiography, Very Little Luggage, he describes being taken by Isobel Brown to be briefed by Harry Pollitt, the leader of the CPGB. However, Sinclair-Loutit insisted: "I was going to Spain with a medical unit supported by all shades of decent opinion in Britain. I felt that I had a very heavy responsibility towards its members and towards those who were sending us. We were a small unit and I was not going to do anything behind the backs of its members... I went on to say that a party fraction was being established in the Unit and since I was sure that its members had the work as much to heart as the rest of us it was hard to see why it had seemed necessary to create it." He then went on to complain about the addition of CPGP member, Hugh O'Donnell, to the unit.
The leadership of CPGB was also involved in the creation of the International Brigades. All the commanders of the British Battalion were party members. This included Wilfred Macartney, Tom Wintringham, George Aitken, Fred Copeman, Harry Fry, Bill Alexander and Sam Wild. The party also kept political control of the volunteers by appointing party members as political commissars. This included Wally Tapsell, Harry Dobson and Dave Springhill.
The rise of fascism in Germany and Italy increased support for the Communist Party and after the signing of the Munich Agreement, membership reached 15,570. Members included Mary Valentine Ackland, Bill Alexander, Felicia Browne, Christopher Caudwell, James Friell, Claude Cockburn, Fred Copeman, John Cornford, Patience Darton, Len Crome, Ralph Fox, Nan Green, Charlotte Haldane, John Haldane, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawn, Lou Kenton, David Marshall, Harry Dobson, Jessica Mitford, A. L. Morton, Esmond Romilly, George Rudé, Raphael Samuel, Alfred Sherman, Thora Silverthorne, E. P. Thompson, and Tom Wintringham.
Maxwell Knight was the head of B5b, a unit at MI5 that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. One of Knight's spies, Olga Grey joined the Friends of the Soviet Union. She soon gained the confidence of Percy Glading, the CPGB national organizer. According to Francis Beckett, the author of The Enemy Within (1995): "Olga Gray worked for the CP for six years, from 1931 to 1937, first as a volunteer and then full time at King Street. She was surprised to find herself growing to like these Bolsheviks of whom she had heard such hair-raising things. When she began to help Percy Glading with a scheme to convey plans of a British gun to the Soviet Union, she found herself liking the man. Although Olga wanted to give up her job with MI5 Knight managed to persuade her to stay on until Glading was in the net."
Olga Gray accumulated proof that Glading had been recruiting sources inside the Woolwich Arsenal, and when the spy ring was arrested in January 1938, three of its members pleaded guilty to stealing secret blueprints and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Glading was sent to prison for six years. Harry Pollitt did not suspect Olga Gray, as he believed the traitor was Jack Murphy, one of the founders of the CPGB who had left the party over ideological issues.
Pollitt remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. He published a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. It included the following passage: "The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism."
Stalin was furious with Pollitt's pamphlet as the previous month he had signed the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". He added: "Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line." Bob Stewart disagreed and mocked "these sledgehammer demands for whole-hearted convictions and solid and hardened, tempered Bolshevism and all this bloody kind of stuff."
William Gallacher agreed with Stewart: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades." Harry Pollitt joined in the attack: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten."
John R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, thought the Comintern was placing the CPGB in an absurd position. "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said."
Harry Pollitt then made a passionate speech about his unwillingness to change his views on the invasion of Poland: "I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."
However, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, John R. Campbell and William Gallacher voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.
The CPGB put out a "War on Two Fronts" policy statement. It called for a real war against fascism and a political war against the government. It also demanded nationalisation of the arms industry and greater democracy in the armed forces.
Tom Wintringham, who had been expelled by the CPGB because he was living with Kitty Bowler, a non-party member who had been friendly with supporters of Leon Trotsky, argued that the new party line was "disastrous, wrong, non-Marxist, contrary to the interests of the working-class and of the revolution."
Fred Copeman was one of those who resigned from the Communist Party during this dispute: "It has yearly become harder to make excuses to my conscience each time an action of the Soviet Government or the Communist Party has cut across my interpretation of personal freedom. The decision of the Russian Government to withhold arms to the Spanish Republic, in order that the Spanish Communist Party could gain a political point, needed some understanding. The trials of old Bolsheviks were even harder to swallow. The Soviet attack on Finland I found hard to accept, but was unable to prove completely wrong. Their alliance with the Nazis in 1939, aligned with the complete reversal of policy by our own Communist Party, forced me to begin to look elsewhere for an ideology and philosophy so fundamentally true that it would be possible for me to find real happiness in giving my all in the struggle for its acceptance by mankind."
On 22nd June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That night Winston Churchill said: "We shall give whatever help we can to Russia." The CPGB immediately announced full support for the war and brought back Harry Pollitt as general secretary. Membership increased dramatically from 15,570 in 1938 to 56,000 in 1942.
In 1943 Dave Springhill was arrested and charged with obtaining secret information from an Air Ministry employee and an army officer and passing it to the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to seven years penal servitude. As Christopher Andrew points out in his book, The Defence of the Realm (2009): "The CPGB leadership reacted with shocked surprise to Springhall's conviction, expelling him from the Party and publicly distancing itself from any involvement in espionage... In order to emphasize its British identity, at the Sixteenth Party Congress in July 1943 the Party decided to call itself the British Communist Party"
William Gallacher was elected to represent East Fife in the 1945 General Election. Another member of the Communist Party, Phil Piratin, was elected to represent Stepney. Piratin later recalled: "Gallacher was the straightest man in the world, we were like father and son." He was asked how the relationship worked: "It's quite simple: there are two of us and Gallacher is the elder, and therefore I automatically moved and he seconded that he should be the leader. He then appointed me as Chief Whip. Comrade Gallacher decides the policy and I make sure he carries it out."
In the House of Commons Gallacher and Piratin associated with a group of left-wing members that included John Platts-Mills, Konni Zilliacus, Lester Hutchinson, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, D. N. Pritt, Leslie Solley and William Warbey.
William Rust attempted to turn the Daily Worker into a popular mass paper. According to Francis Beckett: "He was a fine editor: a cynical boss who thumped the table in his furious rages, he nonetheless inspired journalists' best work. A tall and by now heavily built man, Rust was one of the Party's most able people, and one of the least likeable." Sales reached 120,000 in 1948.
Douglas Hyde, the news editor, later recalled: "We would sit in a room, just half a dozen of us, and talk about the political issues of the day." However, it was Rajani Palme Dutt who decided on the newspaper's policy. "When we had all had our say, Dutt would drape his arm over the arm of his chair - he had the longest arms I have ever seen - bang his pipe out on the sole of his shoe, and sum up. Often the summing up was entirely different from the conclusions we were all reaching, but no one ever argued."
In 1949, Peter Fryer covered the Hungarian Stalinist regime's show trial of Hungarian party leader, László Rajk fot the Daily Worker. As Terry Brotherstone has pointed out: "In good faith, he reported Rajk's 'confession' - made with the promise of being spared, but resulting in his execution - as proletarian justice. So, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's revelations about Stalinism at the 1956 Soviet Party congress were followed in Hungary by Rajk's cynical 'rehabilitation', Fryer's engagement with the CPGB's crisis was personal. The 'doubts and difficulties' shared by many members, for him meant confronting the part he felt he had played in Rajk's murder."
The CPGB opposition to the Cold War and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made William Gallacher and Phil Piratin unpopular figures in post-war England and both were defeated when they stood in the 1950 General Election.
Sam Russell became diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Worker. In 1952 he covered show-trial of Czechoslovakian Communist Party general secretary Rudolf Slansky and 13 other party leaders. At the time he considered the evidence as genuine but according to Roger Bagley it was an experience which left a deep scar." In 1955 Russell was sent to Moscow. During this period he became friendly with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. According to Colin Chambers, "Russell found his attempts to report the experience of everyday life an irritant both to the Soviet authorities and his editor in London. The Soviet Communist party even asked for Russell to be withdrawn, but the British Communist party refused."
During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Sam Russell received a copy of this speech and asked permission to publish it in the Daily Worker. He argued that it would be better for the story to be published by a communist newspaper than in the capitalist press. This idea was rejected with the words: "Just because you are a friend does not mean you can look in our cupboard." As Colin Chambers points out: "Reuters duly broke the story, Russell missed a scoop, and his own version of the speech was cut to shreds by the Daily Worker."
Harry Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive". James Friell (Gabriel), the political cartoonist on the Daily Worker, argued that the newspaper should play its part in condemning Stalinism. He argued the newspaper should take the same approach as the Daily Worker in the United States. The editor, John Gates also encouraged debate on this issue by devoting one page of the newspaper to their readers' views: "The readers thought plenty. The paper received an unprecedented flood of mail, and even more unprecedented, we decided to print all the letters, regardless of viewpoint - a step which the Daily Worker had never taken before. The full page of letters, in our modest eight pages, soon became its liveliest and most popular feature... Readers spoke out as never before, pouring out the anguish of many difficult years."
Gabriel drew a cartoon that showed two worried people reading the Nikita Khrushchev speech. Behind them loomed two symbolic figures labelled "humanity" and "justice". He added the caption: "Whatever road we take we must never leave them behind." As a fellow worker at the newspaper, Alison Macleod, pointed out in her book, The Death of Uncle Joe (1997): "This brought some furious letters from our readers. One of them called the cartoon the most disgusting example of the non-Marxist, anti-working class outbursts..." Macleod went on to point out that a large number of party members shared Friell's sentiments.
Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.
Peter Fryer was in Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising. Fryer, who was critical of the actions of the Soviet Union, found his reports in the Daily Worker were censored. Fryer responded by having the material published in the New Statesman. As a result he was suspended from the party for "publishing in the capitalist press attacks on the Communist Party." The loyal Sam Russell was now sent to the country to report on the uprising.
James Friell condemned John R. Campbell, the editor of the newspaper for supporting the invasion. He told Campbell: "How could the Daily Worker keep talking about a counter-revolution when they have to call in Soviet troops? Can you defend the right of a government to exist with the help of Soviet troops? Gomulka said that a government which has lost the confidence of the people has no right to govern." When Campbell refused to publish a cartoon by Friell on the Hungarian Uprising he left the newspaper and the CPGB.
Over 7,000 members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigned over what happened in Hungary. This included Peter Fryer, who was in Budapest at the time of the invasion. He later recalled: "The crisis within the British Communist Party, which is now officially admitted to exist, is merely part of the crisis within the entire world Communist movement. The central issue is the elimination of what has come to be known as Stalinism. Stalin is dead, but the men he trained in methods of odious political immorality still control the destinies of States and Communist Parties. The Soviet aggression in Hungary marked the obstinate re-emergence of Stalinism in Soviet policy, and undid much of the good work towards easing international tension that had been done in the preceding three years. By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such."
Harry Pollitt responded to the crisis by resigning as General Secretary of the CPGB. However, Rajani Palme Dutt continued to remain loyal to the Soviet Union and in 1968 disagreed with the the CPGB opposition to the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia.
Following the collapse of the communist government in the Soviet Union, the 6,300 members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1991 renamed themselves the Democratic Left. Some members left to form the Communist Party of Britain.
It was, indeed, an inspiring sight to look upon the delegates in the Great Hall at Cannon Street Hotel, especially when one’s thoughts turned to the schemes and plots against labour that have undoubtedly been hatched here by the junkers of Capitalism in Britain. The spectacle itself brought a feeling of compensation to those of us who took up the task of Communist unity nearly two years ago, and when the resolution to form the Communist Party was carried with acclamation, one felt for the moment that nothing else mattered.
Naturally, I was a bit disappointed in the decision to affiliate with the Labour Party. I would have liked it to have been otherwise, because I believe it would have been better for the new party to have demonstrated at the outset that it had no intention of following the same old lines adopted by the Socialist parties of this country before the war. Also because I think we are strong enough to challenge the Labour Party and to give a straight and independent lead and so rally into one camp those workers who have lost all faith in the idea of a peaceful transformation in social institutions. I am certain, of course, that we shall strike a different line from the past, but we would have been saved much unnecessary explanations to many of our comrades had we won on this issue.
The optimism which I maintained to the last regarding our chances of winning the new party to our views on Labour Party affiliation has been amply justified by the narrow majority against us. The failure itself is the responsibility of those elements who were so self-opinionated as to keep away from the convention, while making a virtue of non-affiliation.
However, the main object has been achieved in the formation of a party that will at last definitely link up the Communists of Great Britain with the main army, whose headquarters are at Moscow.
I appeal to all members of the late Communist Unity Group to loyally accept the decisions of the convention; throw their proven weight and strength into the new organisation, and, while maintaining the independence of their views, help forward the raising of the Communist Party towards the day when Communism will triumph in this country.
The essence and value of the conference was its evident eagerness and sincerity. Its old men were young, and its young men did not lack wisdom and that comprehensive understanding which seeks and finds and acts upon its findings. To chair a conference where all can talk and nearly all wish to, where tension is strong, and issues are straight, is a test to try even a nimble-witted laddie like McManus, but he survived the ordeal, and will chair a bigger, where issues will be still further narrowed to immediate questions of life and death import. The leftest of the left and the rightest of the right showed an evident anxiety to start fair, and to keep the Communist Party of Great Britain free from puerilities and that ineptitude for action which has hitherto been a not uncommon feature in the debating stage of our growth. In resolute action and emulation of the high-spirited and farseeing but practical social revolutionists of Russia, minor differences will be relegated to their proper place, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, belated in arrival though it be, will play its part in the overthrow of capitalism and the raising of the first real common civilisation built by workers for workers.
The Convention more than surpassed the best of my expectations. The feeling created was that, after all, everything involved in its preparation had been well worth while. The atmosphere was intense, with the earnestness and determination of the delegates. To preside over such a convention was a pleasure indeed, because however delicate the moments may have been, and these I can assure were many, the sincerity of all was demonstrated by the willing and ready assistance rendered to the chair. The value of the work done is inestimable at the moment, but of one thing I feel sure. It will bring more hope and gladness to the soul of our struggling comrades in Russia and elsewhere, than anything else which has been done in this country.
The decisions were all well taken, and while I may have felt a pang of disappointment at being on the losing side on the Labour Party issue, I must say the battle was fought with healthy vigour and clean frankness, which augers well for the Communist Party. We demonstrated that we were all capable of disagreeing, and that, to my mind, was not the least important manifestation of the Convention. The victorious side were generous to a defeated foe in a moment of victory, while my own erstwhile colleagues at least demonstrated how they could take a defeat. One impression I should like to definitely clear as gathered from Sunday’s experience, and that is, that those arguing for affiliation to the Labour Party did not urge for, nor contemplate working with, the Labour Party.
The antagonists to the Labour Party was general, but those for affiliation held the opinion that such antagonism would be best waged within their own camp. This much in fairness to the other side. There exist no sides now, but separate opinions only within the Communist Party. We are ready now for the real work.
I have had a long and interesting interview with Lenin. We spoke on various aspects of the movement, and particularly upon the growth and progress of Communism in Britain. Lenin had read the report of the Communist Unity Convention held in London last August. He said that the verbatim report of the speeches and resolutions of the Convention showed that the formation of the Communist Party marked an epoch in the history of the British revolutionary movement. The Communist Party had gone a long way towards unifying the Communist elements in Britain, and he hoped that the Party, which had made such an effort to achieve unity, would assist the Communist International in making the forthcoming Unity Congress a great success. Our greatest weakness is the continued prevalence of sectarian factions in the Left Wing. This spirit must be crushed, he contended, at all costs. The time had long since passed for the existence of narrow, partisan, doctrinaire bodies like the present S.L.P.
He was very much interested in my account of the S.L.P., and of its pioneer advocacy in Britain, of the industrial form of the Socialist Republic. He said he had never known that there existed a party in Britain which had refused to participate in the various Congresses of the Second International prior to the war. But why, he asked, did a party with such a record - a record which seemed to indicate that it had been working out the theories of the Bolsheviks before the 1917 Revolution - fail to respond to the revolutionary needs of the movement by refusing to attend the rank and file Convention at which the Communist Party was launched? I said that the vital point of difference between the S.L.P. and the Communist Party was the question of affiliation to the Labour Party. The S.L.P. considered any such approach to the Labour Party was a compromise of principles. Those of us who were expelled from the S.L.P., for attempting to secure unity, were equally opposed to Labour Party affiliation, but we were prepared to go and light out our case on the floor of the Unity Convention and abide by the result of the decision. We viewed the whole question of Labour Party affiliation as one of tactics and not one of fundamental principle. We also considered the need for Communist unity to be of greater importance than minor points such as Labour affiliation. Lenin said that was the proper attitude. But, he said, now that the Labour Party has rejected the application of the Communist Party, now that the Labour Party, itself has solved the problem which separated the S.L.P. from the Communist Party would the S.L.P. join up with the Communist Party? I said I did not think so. Such a party, he said, is destined to speedily disappear; the movement has neither time nor a place for such bodies. In any case, the Third International, by organising a further Unity Convention, which every disciplined group claiming adherence to the Communist International would have to attend, offered a last chance to the various factions in the Left Wing of the British movement to build up an united Communist movement.
Lenin then proceeded to discuss the attitude of the Communist Party towards the Labour Party in view of the much talked-of forthcoming General Election. His views on the subject showed that he abhors the type of revolutionary who has a canalised, or single track, mind. Lenin looks upon every weapon as necessary in the conflict with capitalism. To him, as a good student of old Dietzgen, every weapon, every policy, and every problem must be examined in the terms of its relations to the needs of the moment and the means at our disposal. This explains why he does not go out of his way to extol one particular weapon. He clearly realises the value of revolutionary parliamentary action but, he also understands its limitations as a constructive power in the creation of a Workers Industrial Republic. To Lenin the test of the real revolutionary Communist is to know when to use a given weapon and when to discard it.
Talking on the Labour Party, Lenin said he was very glad to learn that it had refused to accept the affiliation application of the Communist Party. It was a good move to have applied for affiliation, because the refusal of the Labour Party to accept Communists in its ranks showed the masses exactly where the Labour Party stood. Henderson had thus unwittingly paid a great tribute to the growing power of revolutionary Communism in Britain by being afraid to have aggressive Communists in his organisation; and the Labour Party, by its own action, in turning down the Communist Party, had plainly indicated that there was at last a fighting group in Britain which had attracted good mass fighters to its ranks. Of course, continued Lenin, we must not forget that the Communist Party in its application for affiliation to the Labour Party very frankly put forward certain conditions which would have given it full freedom of action to conduct its own policy in its own way. We must never enter into negotiations with bodies, such as the Labour Party, without demanding full freedom of action. In this respect the Communist Party’s attitude in applying to the Labour Party for admission to its ranks differed, most fundamentally, from such organisations as the I.L.P. and B.S.P., which formally accepted the Labour Party’s constitution and policy. The strong stand taken up by the Communist Party, in seeking affiliation with the Labour Party, was no doubt arrived at as a result of the B.S.P. policy sharpened by the militant elements expelled from the S.L.P. It was a good omen for the future that these two groups were able to come together. And it was a good thing that the ex-S.L.P. men, who were so keen against affiliation with the Labour Party, realised the value of revolutionary discipline by refusing to split the new party because their own position had not been accepted. Likewise, when the Labour Party threw out the request for affiliation it was the B.S.P. element that was tested and it stood firm. To have past through two such severe trials, and to have maintained the solidarity of the organisation, was a tribute to the seriousness of the comrades who had formed the Communist Party.
Then with regard to the point of the Labour Party and its obligations to the Labour movement. The Communist Party was the first to bring into the open and draw attention to the criminal decision on the part of the Labour Government as soon as they took office, to cut themselves adrift from the organised Labour Party and the general Trade Union Congress to which they owe their positions and to whom they ought to have been responsible; to disown the Labour movement and to declare quite openly that they held their office in trust for His Majesty, King George, and not for the organised Labour movement of this country. Comrades, the importance of this cannot be minimised.
We know what Jimmie Thomas is; we know what Johnny Clynes is; we know what these erstwhile leaders of the Labour movement who are in office at the present time, but we must emphasise this fact, we will not lose an opportunity of drawing the attention of the workers to the fact that those people who have been put into office, whether for good or ill, to express the organised will of the Labour movement—that as soon as they get into some particular bourgeois office they have been prepared to kick the ladder from beneath their feet and go right over, to the camp of the bourgeoisie. We want to get the workers to understand that when their leaders are pushed forward to take office they do so on behalf of the organised workers as a whole, and that they should hold their positions in trust for the working class, and be prevented from separating themselves from the organised working class. Yon get, for example, MacDonald as soon as he is in office writing about the importance of the benchers, and all kinds of beautiful phrases of democracy and so forth, and all the time contained in this beautiful writing was inherent a repudiation of definite Party control over the leaders of the organisation, paving the way for the day when he would be able to stand up and say, “I hold my position in trust for His Majesty, King George,” and I am not responsible to the Labour Party or the General Trade Union Congress, although I am quite willing to consider sympathetically any proposal or resolution that the Labour Party has do put before me.
We have also got to place on record the fact that as soon as the Labour Party in the 1922 election got its magnificent vote, we got then the first indication that the Labour Party leadership at all events was going to travel along the lines of the old Liberal Party. It issued its manifesto, and declared it had now to carry forward the great principles of radicalism. The result is that to-day we see the Labour Party being converted into a Liberal Party in order to justify its claims to carry forward the great traditions of radicalism. In the same way you get MacDonald at the Independent Labour Party Conference in the absurd position of going there as Prime Minister and simply talking to it in the same manner that Lloyd George talked to the Trade Union Congress when he bad occasion to use that Congress.
It is said Comrade Trotsky wanted democracy to come from below, and the Central Committee wanted to introduce it from above. For Comrade Trotsky or anyone else to speak of introducing the Resolutions of the Party Conference from “below,” that is to begin with the locals spreading upwards, is to again forget the first principles of Bolshevik Party organisation, and thereby strengthen the political position of the opponents of the Party. Of what use is it to elect an Executive Committee if the decisions of the Party Congress can be effectively carried through without the election of such a committee? And this is what the proposals amounts to. It finds its echo amongst many industrialists in this country and also amongst reformist Labour leaders. The industrialists plead for more ballots, more referendums, impervious to the fact that they are simply transferring the Parliamentarism of the Labour Party to the industrial arena. The union leaders respond, and the “coming from below” turns out to be more often than not the means for preventing action than securing it.
The industrialists grasp at forms of procedure when the real issue is the organisation of the struggle against reformism due to the fact that the trade unions have yet to be won to the class war line of working class interests. It is this control of working class organisation by leaders who are opposed to the class interests of the workers and refuse to lead the workers in the fight for those interests, that makes it necessary to organise the struggle “from below” in the unions and the Labour Party. But this cannot apply to a revolutionary party based upon the interests of the working class. To apply it to such a party is to utterly demoralise it by the introduction of the reformist forces it exists to destroy. To propose such a course at an important stage in the history of the revolution, when the Party was called upon to make a tremendous strategic move, to adjust itself to an entirely new mileu, as must be the case in the change from war Communism to the NEP, was to endanger the united action of the Party by separating the C.C. from the body of the Party. Obviously if the Party is to undertake an internal transformation at the moment it has to conduct a political manœuvre it must retain unity. Such unity could only be secured under the central direction of the Executive. The high-sounding phrase of “action from below” proves to be nothing more nor less than Menshevik phrase-mongering. It reminds us of the would-be English revolutionary leaders who hide their own weakness in accusing the masses of never being ready and declaim, “They who would be free must themselves strike the blow.” Again - petty bourgeois deviation. How shall we face our October if these things take root in our Party?
It is perfectly clear to me after yesterday’s discussion that there is no place for me in the C.P.G.B. at this stage of its history.
After delaying discussion with me on questions raised by me as far back as March 10, 1932, you hold a Political Bureau meeting to which I am not invited; you refrain from circulating the letters which had passed between the Secretariat and myself; you draft a statement as a result of the discussion at this meeting and present it to me for acceptance at the present meeting, winding up your speeches in ultimatum form. You seek to confine discussion to a paragraph in an article although I acknowledged what I considered to be its errors, much more readily than most members of the Political Bureau are prepared to do under similar circumstances. This may be your conception of how to settle differences, but it is not mine.
I was accused of “manœuvring for a platform against the Political Bureau.” The same kind of accusation was made when I differed from the Political Bureau on its estimate of the General Election. You proved to be wrong on that. It may be that you will prove to be wrong again. At any rate I am not prepared to be convinced by ultimatums. Nor am I convinced by your arguments of yesterday afternoon before the categorical demand was made. I see, as yet, no reason to depart from the line indicated in my letters. So you can put your case before the workers and I will put mine. I feel there is no alternative, for after these experiences I have not the slightest confidence in any internal discussion you may initiate.
I am sorry to part company with the party after all these years of service to it, but I decline to go about subordinating myself to a policy I do not conscientiously accept, to be silent on questions which I conscientiously deem important, and subject myself to an authority which sees in every difference of opinion which arises a Machiavellian manœuvre to deprive the Secretariat of the party of its power and prestige.
Therefore from to-day I cease to be a member of the C.P.G.B. Whatever of its policy I can continue to support I shall support to the best of my ability.
The renegades from the ranks of Communism, the camp of the enemies of the working class, have received another recruit in the person of J. T. Murphy, who has deserted from the Communist Party of Great Britain.
On May 8th, 1932, Murphy, who had been a member of the Central Committee of the Party in Britain, addressed a letter to the Political Bureau, which declared: "It is perfectly clear to me . . . that there is no place for me in the C.P.G.B. at this stage of its history... Therefore from to-day I cease to be a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain."
What is "this stage" of the Party’s history which Murphy refers to? It is the very moment when the whole attack of capital against the working class, and, above all, against the Communist Party, is being rapidly developed and takes on a more pronounced form. It is the period when the Party is mobilising the working masses for the struggle against the economic and political offensive of the bourgeoisie. It is the period when the Party is leading a tremendous fight against imperialist war and the danger of intervention menacing the U.S.S.R. Particularly at the present moment, when the struggle needs to be strengthened against the enormously swollen stream of poisonous war propaganda which is being poured out, to uncover and expose the feverish war preparations of the bourgeoisie which they seek to mask in every way, Murphy takes the road of desertion and goes over bag and baggage to the camp of the enemy.
This is no chance occurrence. Almost always, at a time of a sharpening of the class struggle, the opportunist elements in the labour movement have lifted up their heads and have preached the policy of capitulation, the line of counter-revolution and have finally openly deserted from the revolutionary class fight.
The expulsion of Mr. J. T. Murphy from the Communist Party shows up once more the conflicts between the leaders of that organisation for the control of its confused rank and file. The issue giving rise to the expulsion was no question of Socialist principle or working-class interest. Theoretically it was a conflict of slogans. The Politbureau called upon the workers to “Stop the transport of munitions”; Mr. Murphy preferred to demand “Credits for the Soviet Union!” Rather slender ground for a charge of heresy, one would imagine; but there is probably more in the matter than meets the eye.
As is usual in the Communist Party, the expulsion was carried out dictatorially. The Politbureau expelled Mr. Murphy in answer to his resignation, and informed the membership afterwards. The Communist Party, unlike the S.P.G.B., provides no opportunity for a member to defend himself against a charge before a branch meeting, delegate meeting or Annual Conference. We have, therefore, no means of testing the amount of support Mr. Murphy had among the members of the Party. It is, however, interesting to notice that the fusilade of condemnation of Mr. Murphy in the columns of the Daily Worker contains at least one significant admission. The Working Bureau of the London District Party Committee, “endorsing the decision of the Politbureau,” drew that body’s attention to the “weakness revealed in our ranks by the fact that nowhere within the Party did any comrades appear to recognise Murphy’s wrong line or query his article” (Daily Worker, May 19th).
Mr. Murphy’s slogan could, of course, be adopted by any capitalist wishing to export goods to Russia. Most Liberals and some Conservatives are in favour of such procedure. At the same time, the slogan officially favoured is of the sort likely to appeal to the sentimental anarchists and general strike fanatics, who fondly hug the delusion that the operations of Governments enjoying the political support of the major portion of the workers can be seriously hampered by attempts at minority mass action. The workers and unemployed (unable, as they are, in their present state of disorganisation, to defend their wages and insurance benefits against “economy” cuts) are expected to rise in defence of the Russian Government! Could folly go further?
Mr. Murphy’s lukewarmness is not altogether a mystery. He has for many years been associated with an important munition producing area (i.e., Eastern Sheffield), and working-class electors of Brightside, whose votes he solicited at the last General Election, not being Socialist, can hardly be expected to display enthusiasm over a proposal to curtail their chance of getting or holding a job. They may want capitalism to be administered more favourably to themselves, but there is the rub—they want capitalism! And no one knows that better than Mr. Murphy. From his point of view, full-time production of munitions or anything else for the defence of the Soviet Union, or for the defence of China from Japanese imperialism, or any other old “ism,” would therefore be a much more attractive election cry.
For the young in those days, politics was a world of simple choices. The enemy was Hitler with his concentration camps. The objective was to prevent a war by standing up to Hitler. Only the Communist Party seemed unambiguously against Hitler. The Chamberlain Government was for appeasement. Labour seemed torn between pacifism and a half-hearted support for collective security, and the Liberals did not count. Everything began to change, of course, with the Stalin-Hitler Pact and the Soviet attack on Finland; but it was at first too easy to rationalise these reversals of Russian policy simply as a reaction to the failure of Britain and France to build a common front against Hitler.
The fact that I would be aiding and abetting a transaction declared illegal by the British Government did not worry me at all. I was wholly on the side of the International Brigade and opposed to the Chamberlain Government's policy on Spain, disgusted by its apparent fraternisation with the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists. I had allowed my only child to volunteer, and he was fighting the Fascists on the outskirts of Madrid. I was doing my best to help him and his comrades and their dependents; I was speaking everywhere in aid of Spain; I was an active worker in a noble, just, and lofty cause. The only nation in the whole world that was sponsoring the fight of the Spanish workers against Fascism was the Soviet Union; the Third International was putting to shame the timorous, almost traitorous inactivity of the Second International. I was proud to belong to the Party and the movement that was dedicated to freedom and liberty under the banners of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
It was the Labour disaster of 1931 which first set me seriously to thinking about possible alternatives to the Labour Party. I began to take a more active part in the proceedings of the Cambridge University Socialist Society, and was its Treasurer in 1952/35. This brought me into contact with streams of Left-Wing opinion critical of the Labour Party, notably with the Communists. Extensive reading and growing appreciation of the classics of European Socialism alternated with vigorous and sometimes heated discussions within the Society. It was a slow and brain-racking process; my transition from a Socialist viewpoint to a Communist one took two years. It was not until my last term at Cambridge, in the summer of 1933, that I threw off my last doubts. I left the University with a degree and with the conviction that my life must be devoted to Communism.
During the election campaign my opponents, when devoid of all other arguments, always fell back on the following: "Don't vote for Gallacher. If he is returned, he'll be all alone and helpless. One man can do nothing. You'll simply be throwing away your vote." Such an argument, coming from those who were wont to brag of Keir Hardie and the work he accomplished single-handed, represented no actual judgment of the qualities or capabilities of a representative of the Communist Party; it was a desperate attempt to retrieve a weakening position. Nevertheless, it is a very fair criticism of the type of candidate that, in many cases, these very same people are most anxious to support.
We did not at that time realize sufficiently that Soviet Communists hate extreme Left-Wing politicians even more than they do Tories or Liberals. The nearer a man is to Communism in sentiment, the more obnoxious he is to the Soviet unless he joins the party.'
On this side of the House we represent and speak for the workers of this country, the men who toil and sweat. (Hon. Members: "So do we.") Oh! You do speak for the workers, do you? (Hon. Members: "Yes.") All right. We shall see. The leader of the miners says that theirs is the hardest, most dangerous and poorest paid job in the country. Is there anybody who will deny it? The miners make a demand. They ballot for it, and the ballot is a record, and we who speak for and on behalf of the miners demand an increase of 2s. a day for the miners. We demanded it from these benches. Now it is your turn. Speak now. Speak, you who claim to represent the workers. We say not a penny for armaments. It is a crime against the people to spend another penny on armaments. Every penny we can get should go in wages for the miners, towards the health and well-being of the mothers and the children and adequate pensions for the aged and infirm. Ten shillings a week. I would like the Noble Lady (Lady Astor) to receive only 10s. and then she would change her tune. Last night the Chancellor of the Exchequer was meeting some friends, and they were having a dinner, the cost of which was 35s. per head. Thirty-five shillings per head for a dinner, and 10s. a week for an aged man or woman who has given real service to this country and has worked in a factory or mine.
We require every penny we can get in order to make life better for the working class. If the £7,000,000,000 which we spent during the War in ruin and destruction had been spent in making life brighter and better for the people of this country what a difference it would have made.
I would make an earnest appeal to those honourable members of the House who have not yet become case-hardened in iniquity. The National Government are travelling the road of 1914, which will surely lead to another and more terrible war, and to the destruction of civilisation. Are honourable members s going to follow them down that road?
The party which is represented on these benches, from which, at the present moment, I am an outcast, has set itself a task of an entirely different character, that of travelling along the road of peace and progress and of spending all that can be spent in making life higher and better for all. We invite those of you who are prepared to put service to a great cause before blind leadership of miserable pygmies who are giving a pitiful exhibition by masquerading as giants, to put first service to a great cause, not to a National Government such as is presented before us, but to a Labour Government drawing towards itself all the very best and most active and progressive elements from all parties and constituting itself, as a consequence, a real people's Government concerned with the complete reconstruction of this country, with genuine co-operation with the other peace nations for preserving world peace, and a Government that follows the road of peace and progress.
I make an appeal even while I give a warning. Do not try to stop us on the road along which we are travelling. Do not try to block the road by the meshes of legal entanglements or by fascist methods."
William Gallacher, Communist MP lived through some of the most vivid hours of all his life of struggle yesterday and today, when he visited comrades in the front-line trenches on the central front.
The news that Gallacher was in the trenches roused scenes of enthusiasm like those seen when Pollitt visited the comrades. It is easy enough to describe how the men of that battalion greeted Gallacher, how they cheered and how they sang the International. What is not so easy to describe or to make real to you who are reading this a long way off is just what that enthusiasm, that cheering and that singing means when it is done by men who have endured what these men have endured in their struggle for the independence of Spain and the freedom of Europe.
I cannot tell you in detail the story of these men's struggle during the past week, because that would amount to giving information to the enemy.
I can only tell you that among all those who have fought here side by side with their Spanish comrades during the battles and the long, wearisome vigils of the past seventy days, there are none who have surpassed the heroism of the men who yesterday and today greeted Gallacher with a spirit which even he had no words to describe.
I suppose Gallacher has seen in his life as many examples of heroism as any living man. He told me that in all his life he had never seen anything to surpass what he saw in those trenches on his visit there yesterday.
It has yearly become harder to make excuses to my conscience each time an action of the Soviet Government or the Communist Party has cut across my interpretation of personal freedom. The decision of the Russian Government to withhold arms to the Spanish Republic, in order that the Spanish Communist Party could gain a political point, needed some understanding. The trials of old Bolsheviks were even harder to swallow. The Soviet attack on Finland I found hard to accept, but was unable to prove completely wrong. Their alliance with the Nazis in 1939, aligned with the complete reversal of policy by our own Communist Party, forced me to begin to look elsewhere for an ideology and philosophy so fundamentally true that it would be possible for me to find real happiness in giving my all in the struggle for its acceptance by mankind.
The crisis within the British Communist Party, which is now officially admitted to exist, is merely part of the crisis within the entire world Communist movement. The central issue is the elimination of what has come to be known as Stalinism. Stalin is dead, but the men he trained in methods of odious political immorality still control the destinies of States and Communist Parties. The Soviet aggression in Hungary marked the obstinate re-emergence of Stalinism in Soviet policy, and undid much of the good work towards easing international tension that had been done in the preceding three years. By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such.
They were Stalin's men. They did what he told them and they were dependent on him. To what extent is an open secret inside the Party. The famous programme The British Road to Socialism, for example, issued in February 1951 (without the rank and file being given a chance to amend it) contained two key passages, on the future of the British Empire and of the British Parliament, which were inserted by the hand of one Joseph Stalin himself, who refused to let them be altered.
These men remain Stalinists. But Stalinism has been revealed, both in theory and practice, as a monstrous perversion of Marxism. Leaders who still believe in it and still practise it cannot be trusted to go on leading, and cannot protect themselves from exposure by an appeal to the Communist principles they have grossly betrayed.
In 1953 Stalin died, and the floodgates of Moscow started to open. There was only a trickle at first, and it was another three years before anything like the full story of the Stalinist terror could be told. We still do not know how many people were murdered, only that the killing went on right up to Stalin's death, that torture was routine, that tens of millions died. Stalin's terror was on such an unimaginable scale that a million or two more or less killed and tortured would barely affect our perception of it. Stalin was defended by sincere Communists for whom the years after 1953 were ones of dawning horror. How they coped, and whether they kept the faith, depended entirely on the individual.
Phil Piratin, out of Parliament and a full-time Party worker, remembers: "Sometimes at our political committee meetings after Stalin's death, Harry Pollitt would take from his pocket a piece of paper, and say that the Czech ambassador had given him the following names of people who had been ... what was that word they used? Terrible word! Horrible word! Rehabilitated, that's it." A terrible word because to be rehabilitated you must already have been condemned and shot, probably after being tortured. "It used to hurt me. Since then I sometimes try to ascertain how others felt. It's something we all still find hard to talk about."
At one of these meetings a Czech surname was read out which caused a sudden sick feeling in Piratin's stomach. "I asked Harry to give us the full name. Harry just looked at me. My wife and I were friends with this man and his wife, they used to come to our house in Hampstead, we went to their flat in Kensington. Then in 1949, they were due to come over one night, and his wife phoned up and said he'd been called away. A few weeks later my wife phoned the flat. There was a new voice, it said our friends had gone back to Prague. We never heard from them again. Now I knew why. "I thought: do I tell my wife? I told her in the end. She was very distressed. It was the start of a long period of distress. She felt sick at heart, as I did. Those things live in you, the look in my wife's face when I told her."
Piratin never left the CP. But his heart had gone out of the work, and he quietly resigned all his Party posts. With a little money of his wife's, they went into business together, and, as he puts it, "prospered". But the previous generation of Communist leaders was far closer to it all than Piratin. Harry Pollitt, Johnny Campbell and Bill Rust were all frighteningly close to the terror. Wives, children, lovers - for them the terror laid its cold hand on their lives in the late 1930s and never let go. The leaders of the Comintern generation were now so locked into what happened in Moscow that they must either break with their life's work or rationalize what was happening.