Useful Idiots

Under the Red Flag: A History of Communism in Britain

Keith Laybourn & Dylan Murphy <em>Sutton Pub

Of all the places in the world, communism should have triumphed here. Victorian Britain, an advanced industrial state riven by class conflict, was a country ripe for revolution. Above all, it contained a huge, exploited proletariat who had their hands on the means of production. So why did the Communist Party fail so spectacularly in Britain? Why did it have to endure the humiliation of being trounced by the Monster Raving Loony Party in a by-election in 1981, finally atrophying into nothingness in the early 1990s?

Under the Red Flag attempts to answer that question. The authors make clear that vital opportunities were missed early on in the movement's history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the ideology could have mushroomed into a powerful movement, a combination of political infighting, isolationism and a flippant attitude to the emerging trade unions and democracy all meant that the Social Democratic Federation (later renamed the British Socialist Party) never gained the formidable working-class support of the Independent Labour Party.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had an uneasy and constantly changing relationship with the Labour Party. Lenin initially wanted the British communists to unite with Labour, but his death and the ascendancy of Stalin led to fatally contradictory policies. In 1928, the CPGB adopted the "class against class" policy, which led to a rejection of a united front with the social democratic parties. It endeavoured to step up the fight against the bourgeois leadership of the Labour Party and believed that it could establish itself as an independent party at the coming elections.

It was only the United Front Against Fascism that saved a dying party from descending into the political abyss. Hitler's rise to power led to the abandonment of revolutionary policies as the party attempted to unite with the anti-fascists. Most notably, party members (although not the official party itself) were instrumental in fighting off the black-shirted fascists who supported Oswald Mosley.

There were less heroic aspects to the communists at that time. The party's dependence on Moscow meant that it defended Stalin's atrocities with monotonous regularity. In September 1936, the Daily Worker (later the Morning Star) launched an attack on Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev with the infamous headline, "Shoot the reptiles".

Yet British intellectuals continued to support the party. The late 1930s, in particular, were a period of considerable growth. Even when it withdrew its support for the war effort - after the Nazi-Soviet pact, it became obvious that it was no more than a pawn to Russia - membership did not drop significantly. However, when Hitler invaded Russia, the party threw its weight behind the war effort with vigour.

If the last years of the war saw the party reach its popular zenith, the postwar years were marked by irrevocable decline; and after Russian troops brutally suppressed the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956, membership haemorrhaged. The next 40 years saw British communism degenerating into unseemly displays of factionalism between the unreconstructed Marxist-Leninists, who believed in a proletarian revolution, and the Eurocommunists - trendy pinkos - who believed that communism should be achieved by any means possible, even if it meant supporting capitalism. The Eurocommunists sought "to achieve a society in which people are free from oppression based on gender, race, sexuality and disability . . . Our ultimate goal is that of a classless society where all people are equal and free."

The banality of that statement, so very similar to the equal opportunities policies to which companies and public organisations sign up, obliquely reminds us of where communism actually triumphed in Britain: its core values are now the values that most of us believe in. In this sense, undeclared Marxists did infiltrate our Civil Service, our public bodies and even our governments and defined our contemporary thought.

Francis Gilbert is working on a novel about wartime Hungary