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Moscow, my family and me

To grow up in the Communist Party of Great Britain was to be on the side of the future . . . or so it seemed.

On Sundays when I was a small boy my family would sometimes go to Halifax for lunch with the Thompsons. On other Sundays they might come to lunch in Leeds with us. I enjoyed playing with the Thompson children in their garden, which I think had a swing and trees, while the grown-ups talked politics, literature and history indoors. One day in 1957 I asked my mother: “When are we going to go and see the Thompsons next?” I was seven at the time. “I’m not sure,” my mother rep­lied, and changed the subject.

My parents never visited Edward and Dorothy Thompson again. In fact, I’m not sure whether the four of them met at all after 1957; for there had been a parting of the ways. The Thompsons had been friends of my parents, Arnold and Margot, since their student days in the late 1930s. My mother had briefly lived in the same flat as Edward’s brother Frank, who was killed by the Nazis in Bulgaria during the war. But the Thompsons left the Communist Party over the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, while my parents stayed; and that was that.

In the 1990s, Dorothy Thompson told me that there had been emotional rows between the two sides on the platform of Leeds Station as those who had attended crisis party meetings in London returned to Yorkshire. After my father’s death, I learned that he had voted against the pro-Soviet resolution in a minority of two on the party executive committee. Yet he believed in the party’s “democratic centralism” – under which the minority carried out the majority position – so he never mentioned it, including to his friend Dorothy.

The break was profound. The book that Edward and Arnold had been planning to write about William Blake was abandoned. Many years later, Edward did write a book about Blake and sent a copy to my father, who was moved to tears when he read the note that came with it.

No glimpse of this kind into what Raphael Samuel, in the best book on the subject, called “the lost world of British communism” can tell the full story. But such glimpses are the best we’ve got. Today British communism feels as much a relic of the past as the Soviet Union itself – and for many of the same reasons. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as it eventually came to call itself, would not have existed were it not for the Russian Revolution of 1917. When the party dissolved itself in 1991, the year in which the Soviet Union died, it was because Lenin’s revolution was exhausted, too. As a certain kind of left-wing orator used to be trained to say: comrades, this was no accident.

British communism had small ­pre-Soviet predecessors, and spawned a variety of tiny post-Soviet successors that still squabble over its legacy. But the essence of the CPGB – as the convulsions over Hungary dramatically proved in 1956 – was its identification with the Soviet Union. The party was founded in 1920 by revolutionaries who wanted to defend the workers’ state. Crucially, it was also created because Lenin himself wanted such a party to exist in imperialism’s heartland. Moscow remained the British party’s political guiding star ­until at least the 1950s. Although this fidelity wavered in the 1960s, Russia continued to help keep the party financially afloat almost until the end.

The Russian connection also meant that the party spent much of its first 20 years being harassed and attacked by the police. Its offices were raided and its members were often on trial or in jail. Because of its umbilical link with Moscow, it spent most of its life under remarkably effective surveillance; by 1952, MI5 knew the identities of 90 per cent of the CPGB’s members. Some of the files on them, including a few on my father, have been released in the National Archives, and I am often contacted by other children of Communists of that period to ask if files on their parents can be published (which is entirely up to MI5).

The CPGB’s loyalty to Moscow also triggered its morally darkest moments – the switches of line dictated by the Communist International (Comintern) in the 1920s and 1930s; the U-turn following the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, which arguably did more damage to the party than any other event in its history; and the crisis over Hungary, which drove many prominent members, including the Thompsons and Samuel, to resign. All of these played a big part in ­denying the postwar CPGB the electoral success it craved.

A few secret Communists spied for Russia. Many others made enthusiastic visits to the USSR and its postwar satellites. Yet most Communists drew much of their political energy from sources closer to home. Yes, Communists were internationalists with global political horizons. Yes, they were often naive and disbelieving about Stalin’s crimes, Soviet interests and, indeed, the global revolutionary project more generally, but it was not the Soviet Union alone that made them get up each day and lead such prodigiously consuming political lives. In most cases it was industrial, community, anti-fascist and anti-imperial campaigns at home that made them communists and continued to refresh their commitment.

Anyone who is tempted to be patronising about British Communists should also remind themselves that it was commonplace for Communist lives and careers to be thwarted by blacklisting and political bans.

Few of us who knew it or grew up in it would quarrel with the accounts of writers such as Raphael Samuel, David Aaronovitch and Kenneth Newton. They all depict the British party, with its foibles and pre­occupations, as an amalgam of immense political commitment and pragmatism of a very British kind.

The CPGB was a party with a moral code that owed more to the Bible than the Bolsheviks. This was encapsulated in one British delegate to an early meeting of the Communist International standing up and objecting to a proposal because to endorse it would involve lying. He was greeted with laughter by the other Comintern delegates.

Although he was frustrated by official suspicions of his research at almost every turn, Newton in 1969 attempted to write one of the few scholarly surveys of the Communist Party. His rather dry account, The Sociology of British Communism, concluded that the British Communists “are certainly committed to a cause and an ideology, but they tend to be pragmatic, tentative, humanitarian and sometimes surprisingly cautious in their opinions”. This feels truthful to me. It may seem as if the Communists were exotic and rather romantic, and in some ways they were, but they were also ordinary in other respects.

As someone who grew up in a middle-class Communist family before moving away from the party in my twenties, I find this all corresponds with my own experience. My parents were born in 1916 and died in 1986 and 1995 respectively. Their life­spans were thus coterminous with those of the Soviet Union and the CPGB. Yet I often remember them saying, as the hopelessness of the cause grew in the late 20th century, that their primary loyalty was to the party, and to their friends within it, rather than to the Soviet Union. That loyalty was often reciprocated by a party that was not as ­monolithic in practice as it was in theory, as the late Eric Hobsbawm, among others, would have attested.

This is not to say that the Soviet Union was marginal to the British Communists’ world-view. It wasn’t. It was always there in the background. That my first childish memory of any public event was of Stalin’s death – in my mind’s eye I can still see my mother reading about it in the Daily Worker – underscores that fact. My contemporaries are more likely to remember the coronation or the Stanley Matthews FA Cup final of 1953. I cannot recall knowing about either of them at the time, but I don’t think I felt deprived by the ignorance. On the contrary, I felt curiously privileged.

Most of the Communists I knew while I was growing up in the 1950s still saw the USSR as a new kind of society that they hoped – and mostly believed – would eventually get better. Communists were optimists. They believed in progress. They were pilgrims on a long march. The laws of history, as they understood them, were on their side, because Marxism told them so. They thought of themselves as modern, well ­informed, and on the side of rationalism, science and the future.

When I was taken to the funeral of the party leader Harry Pollitt in 1960, where Paul Robeson sang “Joe Hill”, or to that of the former CPGB MP Willie Gallacher in Paisley in 1965, where crowds giving the clenched-fist salute lined the streets, the party’s day had passed. But I believed it belonged to the future.

At least into the mid-1960s, this was not an implausible view. It was embodied more than anyone by Yuri Gagarin, whose poster I proudly stuck on my bedroom wall in 1961. The belief that Russia might own the future was shared by some of communism’s rivals as well as its more unquestioning devotees. If you reread Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech of 1963, you will discover that it was based on the argument that Britain must embrace the scientific revolution or risk being overtaken by the USSR.

Yet at the same time we all knew our cause was a minority one. The British Communist Party was never large. Compared to those in France and Italy, it was a minnow. At its peak, late in the Second World War, it numbered about 50,000 members. Compared to the more than 2.8 million members claimed by the Conservatives in the 1950s or Labour’s one million individual members, the CPGB was tiny. And although a “Communist vote” was a genuine phenomenon at this time – especially in Glasgow, Fife, the Welsh valleys and the East End of London – the 102,000 votes cast for its 21 candidates in 1945, with two MPs elected, proved to be the CPGB’s electoral high-water mark.

British Communists famously exerted an influence out of proportion to their numbers. More than anything, that influence was industrial. It was a proletarian party in a way that even the Soviet party was not. At its zenith, one-third of its branches were factory-based, a source of enormous pride. The Communists were particularly strong among engineers, but they were also an influential presence in the co-operative movement, in higher and secondary education and in countless organisations of civil society, including the arts, especially the theatre. They were a decisive presence in the pre-war unemployed movement and the postwar peace movement, but they were also prominent among council tenants, civil liberties groups and ramblers.

Because the party was small, there was often an element of arbitrariness to its influence and its local character. It was strong in Sheffield but less so in Liverpool. The party in Hertfordshire was more leftist than the rest in the 1930s, while that in Surrey was staunchly pro-Soviet in the 1960s.

A Russian critic of the early CPGB condemned it for being a “society of great friends” rather than a disciplined force. The party never lost that quality. It was also one with its own language and rules. To be a “card-carrying” Communist required one to be “active”. Comrades engaged in “party work”, “factory work” or, as in my father’s case, “university work”. The “political committee” reigned supreme. Meetings were businesslike. Branch meetings were not missed. “Dues” were collected and stamps issued. Only the “paid-up” could get in to some meetings. “Progressives” could be won over. Members sold “lit”, which they got from the “party rooms” where the Daily Worker bazaar was held (at least, it was in Leeds). It was bad to be a careerist, worse still to have ratted, worst of all to be a Trot.

The party was also a social network. There would be a party doctor, a party electrician, a party car salesman. My parents employed a party gardener who had fought in the International Brigades. You knew which party members knew about wine, ancient Greece or farming. You expected to marry within the party. An affair with a Tory – as I once discovered – was frowned on. When you turned up unexpectedly in a town far from home, the party might find you a bed. Party members – and their children – tended to have read books that the non-party world barely knew of. Speaking Russian conveyed a particular mystique. Scotland, the birthplace of many party leaders, was always held in special awe, as much for the scenery and the music as for the militancy.

This could have lasting effects. Samuel wrote: “Like many Communists of my time, I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd.” That duality may have been common to Jewish Communists, but it was also widely characteristic of other Communists and the party itself. It persists today. I feel marked by it for life, and I think others do, too.

By the 1960s, though, the bonds were starting to loosen. The “emergency sense”, as Samuel calls it, which provided Communists with a conviction that they were alive at a moment of tectonic change, began to weaken in the face of defeat and setback. The epic perspective on the world as a struggle, a fight or a battle started to fade. The communist movement itself split between Russia and China. The sharp boundaries between the working and the middle classes grew ever more blurred. The 1960s brought cultural revolts – when I was at university, Communists of both sexes had long hair and wore jeans, but the party’s student organiser continued to wear a suit and tie and denounced the wearing of denim as American. These tensions, and many more, played themselves out in the protracted endgame of communism in the 1980s.

The Soviet Union collapsed for two fundamental reasons. The system did not work; and most people rejected it. That verdict was historically conclusive and just. The dwindling party in Britain had largely detached itself from the Soviet Union long before the end, but it was not spared its fate. It slipped into a battle between old-style “tankies” and the more liberal “Eurocommunists” which received more press attention than anything else in the party’s history.

The Communist Party of Great Britain ceased to have a coherent purpose or world-view once the Soviet Union sank. At the finish the party did the respectable thing by dissolving itself (although a rump group, the Communist Party of Britain, still exists). No longer setting itself apart from British society, it simply disappeared into it. It was an appropriately unsentimental outcome for a rationalist party. Yet it is hard not to feel sentimental about what was lost as the dust of this society of “great friends” was ­finally scattered in the British earth.

Martin Kettle is an assistant editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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