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 appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution