‘THE GLEAM OF SOCIALISM’ Britain’s Communist Party 1920-2020 is a collection of essays and reviews by our Party’s General Secretary, Robert Griffiths, on the first century of our Party in Britain.
Tracing the Communist Party’s evolution from its foundation in 1920 by an amalgamation of different socialist groups, through periods of growth, crisis, decline and re-establishment. The book offers critical reflections on other historical reviews of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Robert Griffiths also offers some personal sketches of important yet often overlooked individual communists.
Two main chapters cover the history of the party chronologically and thematically. There are also important sections on the party’s anti-imperialist positions and its discussions on the Scottish and Welsh national questions. Other essays deal with relations between the Communist Party and Labour Party, work in the trade union and solidarity movements.
You can buy the book here: ‘The Gleam of Socialism’ – Britain’s Communist Party 1920-2020 – PRAXIS PRESS (redletterspp.com)
You can find a full review of the book below by Comrade Phil Katz.
This history of the Communist Party is the one that many communists, socialists and labour movement activists, and probably a fairly long queue of detractors have been waiting for. The appetite for communist history actually told by the party was evident in the 2020 centenary commemorations. The need for such a volume has been accelerated by the high number of recent joiners. What kind of organisation have they joined and what vision have these new members tied their red flag to? And is there a story that could convince the thousands – including many Morning Star readers – who have been thinking about joining, sometimes for years, but have not yet made the decision?
Griffiths has written, edited and compiled this volume, which is critical, self-critical and supportive. It is both a vital read and an enjoyable one. It sets out to demonstrate just how intertwined is the Communist Party with the history and life of the working class in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from its high points to its lowest ebb.
The reader will find that writing this history is a big task involving a staggering list of names, events, political processes, struggles of ideas, changing cultures and the creation of a wide variety of organisations which workers form for their own defence and, for their liberation. Griffiths manages this in a way that makes it possible for any honest, thinking and especially, active worker to take in. That is an achievement in its own right. With his keyboard/pen, our history has become weaponised.
There have been single and multi-volume histories of the Communist Party including Tom Bell’s hastily withdrawn 1937 ‘Short history’ and Klugmann’s ‘official’ history. To such overarching volumes we can add hundreds of individual biographies (often entertaining but too fight shy of controversy), those which are issue-based, others dealing with organisations created by the party and key battles fought. There is a wealth of history of British communism in pamphlet form but these are too readily discarded. And you could weigh those ‘exposing’, ‘denouncing’ and ‘renouncing’ by the tonne especially during the dark days of the cold war and the Eurocommunist period which spawned an entire industry – often tied to academic sinecures.
Four volumes have been published by noted scholars James Klugmann and Noreen Branson taking the story up to 1951. A fifth and then a sixth volume were added by a publisher, previously associated with the CP, without any collaboration with or participation by the Communist Party. On reflection this seems either calculated or bizarre, or more likely both. Griffiths refers to these as “a narrow- minded exercise in vanity publishing.” Certainly the level of scholarship of both is way below standard, with some shocking omissions and fundamental inaccuracies. Griffiths refers to Callaghan’s volume ‘Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: the CPGB 1951-1968’ as a “botched autopsy”. Of other related volumes, notably Fishman’s biography of miner’s leader Arthur Horner, Griffiths refers to as “Ideological grave-robbing”.
Griffiths is the first general secretary of a Communist Party to write a party history. This is not an A-Z however. Rather it is a compendium of articles, features, reviews and cameos produced over forty years. It includes some heavyweight pieces on ‘The Communist Party and the national question’, ‘The new imperialist offensive: Communist Party international policy 1978-88’, ‘Party crises, recovery and re-establishment 1928-1988’. These each present original and honest reflections from one who has been in positions of leadership and in quite a few tight corners. Such sections will have you thinking hard and for a long time.
Elsewhere I have called for communist and labour movement historians to grasp the “big themes” and also to take a stand against historical revisionism. Too much ground is being ceded to pro capitalist historians on the big issues of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘sovereignty’. Too often in response the left has retreated into ever more nuanced, sectionalised accounts of events and political ‘themes’. Two pieces by Griffiths make a valuable contribution to the bigger debates, and in so doing reverse the trend to retreat and excuse. Read the sections ‘100 years of struggle for the working class and humanity’ and ‘The Communist Party 1920-2020: a thematic summary.” Together they make this volume worth the investment.
Griffiths writes as a communist activist and leader who has helped make decisions that define the party’s recent history. He is an established author with a combative style, that employs rigorous standards of research and spurns jargon. Because of its audience this volume opts to use as reference, a sizeable bibliography, rather than tie down the reader with footnotes. But he also knows the power of history as educator, agitator and organiser. So despite the faults, and the errors of decision and judgement that Griffiths does not shirk from describing, he also relates the story as it should be told, with confidence and pride.
Griffiths book aims to do three things and achieves each. It speaks to the growing number of new joiners whilst reinforcing the sense of pride that fired-up those members who have stayed the course. It deals in facts, which are sometimes uncomfortable for the party but always very uncomfortable for the ruling class. And it locates the party in a historical continuity which demonstrates that Marxism is a world outlook of the working class, that also has deep roots in British popular history.
Griffiths deals with this relationship in the final section and points to traditions of working class self-organisation (the unions, the women’s and peace movements), radicalism and to a lesser extent, republicanism (challenge to the order dating back to the corresponding societies, Chartism, support for Paris Commune), political and extra parliamentary agitation (the vote, the Chartists, Suffragettes) and internationalism (USA civil war, Spain, Second Front, Anti apartheid, Chile and the great international union federations). The excellent section on the National Question draws on all these traditions to define a patriotism that is diametrically opposed to the history told of the Empire, on behalf of imperialism. Griffiths calls on workers “to uphold and celebrate everything progressive in their own nation’s history, in particular the struggles of working people against exploitation and oppression.”
Is it a pure story without blemishes? Certainly not. Is it just a recitation of what’s already known? – look out for lots of surprises. Griffiths thinks that the challenge is to define the road to socialism. Why else have a communist party? The road is based on some simple core beliefs and values, defined by Griffiths as “the working classes taking state power in order to dismantle capitalism and construct a socialist society.” But as Lenin said, the devil is in the detail, as this could not be achieved “by a royal decree countersigned by two ministers.” According to Griffiths, the question of how the revolution is to be achieved is “one of the definitive tests for any revolutionary party to answer.” Yes there are other challenges too.
For example asks Griffiths in a section originally penned in 2010 and now updated, does that party fulfil its role – as a force for solidarity and internationalism? Is it able to block the path to fascism and war and can it materially impact on the quality of life of workers as part of the revolutionary process? In this respect, ‘The gleam of socialism’ demonstrates that many of these factors have been achieved at different times. But though the revolution proves elusive, “the experience of politics in the first decade of this new century demonstrates that it is certainly no less necessary.”
He goes on to relate a remarkable history that now spans eleven decades. It involves drama and a bewildering array of political tactics and forms of organisation which include the Councils of Action, ‘Hands off Russia’, National Minority Movement, National Unemployed Workers Movement, Medical Aid for Spain, Anti Racist Alliance, Campaign Against Racist Laws, People’s Convention, People’s Charter, People’s Assembly, Lexit the LCDTU and the Young Communist League. The list could fill up a column or three. He is fearless in describing wrong decisions – themselves usually hotly contested – as well as asserting those very right ones for which the Party deserves far more recognition. These include: ‘Hands off Russia’, ‘Hands off China’, Open the Second Front, very early adoption of opposition to racism as a core principle, ‘No Cruise missiles’, Anti apartheid and solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Griffiths has done the sterling but painstaking work of going into police and secret service files to supplement his research. This work shows there are no end to the stories of eavesdropping on phone conversations, opening letters, bugging offices and burglarising party and private premises, stealing information, preventative detention and using violence extensively against Hunger Marchers, to protect Mosley’s fascists and against poll tax protesters and those supporting striking miners. It is clear that during WW2, a Labour home secretary wanted to ban the communist party altogether but was advised against doing so, by civil servants and the security services. So he banned the Daily Worker and The Week instead.
He tells a story of bold intellectual moves to embrace emerging forms of organisation and communities such as those in struggle against racism, for LGBT+ and women’s liberation and in defence of peace. He describes a party that has stayed true to many a political aim throughout its existence – through good and bad times – from support for Irish Unity (that saw members jailed for gun-running in the 1920s and support for Hunger Strikers in the 1980s), and freedom from colonial rule for Egypt, India and Malaysia, to support for existing socialism in the Soviet Union and China.
It organised – often wanting to achieve more than it could deliver – women to play a leading role in society – from the Women’s Hunger March in 1934, the struggle to join unions during WW2, the formation of the National Assembly of Women, for equal pay and the Greenham peace protests. And it has long been ahead – but not detached – of the contemporary consensus in the labour movement where it had to explain important developments, from the appeasement of Hitler, joining Nato and the then European Community, to deindustrialisation and financialisation of the economy in the 1980s and now to the dangers of the ascendancy of military industrial, food and pharmaceutical capital as the shock-troopers of a new ruling class offensive. The TUC hierarchy may not have liked the communists, but they always paid attention to its predictions.
Griffiths describes in detail other pioneering political positions taken by the party from opposition to the EU and for popular sovereignty, as well as support for progressive federalism and parliaments for Wales, Scotland and England including and an autonomous assembly for Cornwall. The Communist Party was amongst the first to propose electoral reform in favour of a system of STV in multi member constituencies. Griffiths shows, this was advanced by Willie Gallacher Communist MP for West Fife at a war-time parliamentary speakers conference on electoral reform. It took a very early stand in defence of putting people before profit when the pandemic broke in 2020 and has conducted an on and off struggle against reformism which Griffiths explains so ably in a well thought out and lengthy section on ‘Party crises, recovery and re-establishment 1928-1988’.
Most important, Griffiths describes how the communists got themselves into these various ideological conflicts, how they got out of them and what impact they had. He describes the Soviet – German pact of Non Aggression signed in 1939, Hungary in 1956, the China – Soviet ideological struggle in the early 60s and of course, the Czech events in 1968. It is no surprise that he advances a strong case for honest open political debate and unity. Taking the fight to the capitalist class is always the main challenge as “the challenges presented by capitalism in its imperialist stage are as large and perilous as ever.”
Against the doomsayers, Griffiths shares this moment of wisdom which is great advice to those starting out in politics, “That different views exist within a party is, in itself, not unusual. For communists, where these differences are openly debated and resolved in the interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism, they are often positively healthy.” What marks the communists out on the left, is they put the interests of the workers, before that of the party. Where political activists get that relationship wrong, political error is rarely far behind.
Griffiths shows the CP at its best when it swims against the tide – refusing to load the Jolly George, the Invergordon Mutiny, refusing to allow the Jews to be blamed for austerity and war, the legendary volunteer battalion to defend the Spanish Republic, exposing fascist maneuvers in Finland in 1939-40 and then explaining them in thousands of factory gate meetings, this being repeated during the Anglo-Israeli assault on Suez, organising squads to defend communities during the racist riots in Notting Hill, calling for the recall of the fleet during the war in the Malvinas/Falklands and later, playing an important role in mobilising against the Iraq war and warning of the dangers arising from the war in the Ukraine.
New members will be amazed at the extent of the party reach, which includes playing a leading role in the formation of the Marx Memorial Library & Workers School, the Working Class Movement Library, reviving the Labour Research Department, forming the Ramblers, the William Morris Society, the Institute of Employment Rights, Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom), the Left Book Club, campaigns for peace including CND and the British Peace Council, the Anti Apartheid Movement and movements of solidarity with Grenada and Vietnam, Chile and Venezuela.
Griffiths is at his fiery best when writing about the dissolution of the Communist Party by the so-called Eurocmmunists, who ended up dissolving themselves within a few years and making off with all the family silver. In the chapter ‘Party crises, recovery and re-establishment 1928-1988’ he shows how the party has emerged stronger from such crises – citing six major, intense political struggles. The last one has been the hardest to come back from and it has taken thirty-five years of sacrifice and reflection, commitment and campaigning to recover from the impact of the political struggle against reformism and revisionism. This was achieved “in a period when the labour, left-wing movement in Britain and internationally experienced dashed hopes and severe defeats.”
He deals with individual characters – and characters they all are – much of which was unearthed in the book ‘Red Lives’. Some of these lead to a small measure of repetition in his book but this is inevitable in a compilation crafted over many years. Expect to discover the truth about; ‘Red Robbo’, Thora Silverthorne – champion of the founding of the NHS, past general secretary Gordon McLennan, Griffiths dear friend and comrade Morning Star editor John Haylett, Dora Cox and Annie Powell among others.
He uses the longer chapters to mould these into a collective and to demonstrate that they were one among many. These comrades acted not as an ordinary ‘team’ but one bonded by party rules based on democratic centralism. If in the future, Griffiths were to write more about the Party I think that much could be gained by describing how the inner workings of democracy in the Communist Party has evolved. It makes an appearance throughout this volume and a concentrated study would be of great value. so often referred to as ‘Stalinist’ and dictatorial, CP inner democracy would more than hold its own when put against the actions of Blair or Starmer, Bevin and Herbert Morrison.
Griffiths describes the different types of communist. Often their motivations are different as is their character and their origins. Inspiration has changed over the years from that generation fired up by the Bolshevik Revolution. Some dream of better local communities, some believe in god, others are inspired by historical societies such as the USSR (even though they weren’t alive then), some lionise individual figures such as Guevara, some make blankets for refugees, or home made jam for fundraisers, others become battle hardened strike leaders forged on early morning picket lines or housing activists blocking evictions, others become clandestine couriers for revolutionary movements abroad. The Communist Party described by Griffiths, reflects our society. And in this volume there is a real balance of analysis of the individual and the collective.
Griffiths describes key themes as ‘working class self organisation’, ‘Communist internationalism’, ‘Communist unity’, ‘Elections and parliaments’, ‘The Labour Party question’ and ‘The trade union movement’. Griffiths explains the importance of programmes in the communist lexicon. He demonstrates the organic emergence of the idea of a ‘British Road to Socialism’ but also the creative tensions within it. For Griffiths, a constitutional approach to the party programme paved the way for the emergence of reformist ideas in the late 60s and 70s, which was corrected in later editions and especially as part of the process of re establishing the Communist Party in 1988. For a party so immersed in the day to day struggle of a working class fighting to exist under rapacious capitalism, adapting to that struggle and losing sight of the transformative and revolutionary inner kernel of communist politics is a clear and present danger. This is not in any way belittling the importance of the day to day struggle.
Griffiths says of the first Labour Government of 1924 that “it was in office, but not in power.” The story of the Communist Party is the reverse as it has found ways to deploy political power, without being in office. It is amazing how much impact the Communist Party has been able to achieve, without parliamentary representation, with the struggle of mass movements and tactical ingenuity. Griffiths writes proudly of the role of the Communist Party in forcing the Government’s hand on the Second Front, forming the Wales TUC and playing a key role in the establishment of a Scottish parliament. Likewise its leadership of the mass extra parliamentary struggles of the late 60s and early 1970s led to legislation on equal pay, health and safety and against discrimination at work. These are laws that have been built on and workers still use to improve their lives today.
Griffiths aims for this book to be in equal parts educational, a warning and a call to action. Members of the party can face the challenge of capitalism, “inspired by the ideals, efforts and sacrifices of the many thousands who have gone before.” For those who believe in Christmas ask Santa to put this on your list, the rest can order a copy or two, direct from the publisher. You won’t be able to put it down.
By Phil Katz East of England district secretary of Communist Party.