After the party: reflections on life since the CPGB , edited by Andy Croft. Lawrence & Wishart, 2012 ISBN 978-1-907103-47-6
It is twenty years since the demise of the Communist Party, a party which the editor Andy Croft says “was unlike any other in British politics. No other party enjoyed so much influence in the trade union movement, or in British intellectual and cultural life. At its peak the party had 60,000 members and during its life-time serveral hundred Communist councillors and 5 Members of Parliament were elected”.
In this book he, and seven other former communists, reflect on the reasons why they joined the party and how it changed their lives. It is a fascinating book, not just because it is interesting to see why some people become politically active and what it meant to be in the CP but also, now that the party is over, to learn where those people then chose to put their energies and commitment.
Mark Perryman, now of Philosophy Football, joined the CP in 1979. Like me he was at Hull University but, unlike me, chose the CP over the Trotskyists. He was particularly inspired by their political education at the annual summer Communist University of London. “One event I will never forget was a debate between Eric Hobsbawn and miners’ leader Mick McGahey…it felt like the arguments and the people taking part really mattered…a recognition that the need to listen to each other was far more important than the issuing of the “line” for others to follow.” Academics like Hobsbawn are now few on the ground and it would be hard to find a trade union leader with the grit and intellectualism of McGahey, much less to get them to engage with the reality of people’s lives today.
Alistair Findley, who was involved in the Scottish CP, recalls one of the distinct features of the CP: putting the involvement of working class people at the heart of its politics. “In 1971-73 to hear Mick McGahey and Jimmy Reid’s brilliant oratory at mass public demos…eloquent, funny, pugnacious, intelligent, unkind to Tory governments. ..the public face of Scottish marxism…just working class auto-dictats, informed, combatative, no prisoners taken.”
Dave Cope echoes the lack of snobbery in the CP towards working class members. “Membership of the CP, with its encouragement of discussion, reading, debate and attention to cultural affairs was an education of a life-enhancing nature for many working class activists.”
Many of the contributors in the book comment on the internationalism of the party. When Lorna Reith joined she was offered the choice of either the role of Morning Star organiser or of Chile Solidarity campaign representative. After choosing the latter, she travelled to Chile in 1986. “Being part of an international movement was always part and parcel of being in the CP. Branch discussions would almost always include updates and views on what was happening elsewhere in the world”.
But by 1991 the Party was in decline and its membership had fallen to fewer than 7,000. Any hopes of a reformed communism were too late, as Mark Perryman explains, “With the Berlin Wall crashing around our Communist ears, the horrors of the Chinese Tiananmen Square massacre in the summer and…the ousting of Rumania’s brutal Ceausescu.”
Dave Cope feels by that time the party was out of touch with politics on many levels. “The constitution had become unreal, its medium term programme utopian, class was no longer the sole defining function in politics, Lenin was seen as irrelevant and the party did not advocate any existing model of socialism.”
Since 1991 it is as if the CP never existed and their successes are ignored or deleted from the history of the 20th century. As Andy Croft comments, “The 1936 Jarrow March is remembered but not the six much larger Hunger Marches organised by the CP-led National Union of Unemployed Workers.”
Some of the contributors who seem the most distressed by the end of the Party are now in the Labour Party which, rebranded as New Labour, became the antithesis of what the CP stood for. Ironically Lorna Reith’s chaper is titled We will rebuild our country ten times more beautiful. She is now the Deputy Leader of Haringey borough in London and is in the process of making Haringey a much uglier place by making millions of pounds of cuts.
I was never a member of the CP but through my friendship with Ruth and Eddie Frow from 1981 I saw the uniqueness of its political culture and the value put upon its working class and international roots, while the genuine humanity of many of its comrades was impressive.
After the Party reflects the good and the bad in the CP and is an important contribution to the debate as to why its existence and history has been ignored or forgotten. It also asks important questions about why working class people are now so disengaged with the political process, and what we, as socialist activists, are going to do about it.
Bernadette Hyland, WCML volunteer