A spooked leadership is attempting to silence its left critics, especially the rebel youth wing. The use of cadre names, defence of Stalin, advocacy of a popular militia and any public dissent have been outlawed. Paul Demarty reports on what could end up as a messy split
The news is trickling out that the Communist Party of Britain is suffering from ‘growing pains’.
That, in itself, is at least in part heartening. Most groups on the far left have been in decline for most of the period since the 2008 crash - that is, exactly the period when they expected to grow. Some of the misfortunes have been apparently random (it so happened that the Socialist Workers Party chose to immolate itself in 2013, for instance); some of rather grander significance, such as the astonishing revival of the Labour left after Jeremy Corbyn got on the leadership ballot, immediately putting many firmly held perspectives to the sword. The bottom line has been the same, however: smaller sects have winked out of existence, and larger ones atrophied or imploded. Any growth among consciously organised groupings of self-declared Marxists is positive.
The CPB - and its youth organisation, the Young Communist League - have found themselves swelled by hundreds of new recruits, but they are not necessarily thought to be the ‘right sort’ by the leadership, which has now produced an extensive protocol for members’ behaviour on social media. We are given to understand that, especially in the ranks of the YCL, this document has not exactly been met with a rapturous welcome.1
Its content is not uninteresting from our point of view, as both another entry in an ever-longer history of left groups attempting to keep their troops in line in the chaotic battlefield of the internet, and as an index of the image the CPB wants to project to the wider world.
Old and new
There is also the question of exactly who these troublesome youth are, and the protocol gives us a sort of photographic negative of their political character. No doubt they are of a heterogeneous character: some ex-Corbynites, others rejoining after resigning to join Labour. It seems that there is a particularly troublesome constituency, however, of young and dedicated Stalinists: and very much, as it were, of the Stalin school of Stalinism.
Lawrence Parker, a contributor to this paper, commented on the social media protocol over the weekend, highlighting one particular paragraph as especially pertinent:
Research and debate continues on the reality of major events in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s; but adulation of Stalin and support for the substantial abuses of state power which occurred under his leadership is not compatible with our party’s judgment of these matters, as reflected in BRS [the CPB’s programme, Britain’s road to socialism - PD].2
Not long after, comrade Parker received an email from a CPB and YCL member, who presented a picture of the YCL “attracting loads of people - hundreds, across the country - who have a very anti-revisionist, pro-Stalin, position”, and claiming that the incoming central committee of the YCL has a “majority … dead opposed to [the protocol]”. This policy of “no talking about Stalin”, the comrade writes, “is the knee-jerk reaction of the older generation of the CPB leadership”.3
It perhaps offends common sense that there should emerge a whole new generation of people defending the record of Stalin, given the rather grisly nature of that record, so some kind of genealogy is in order. While the ‘official communist’ parties after 1956 were generally prepared to allow, in spite of the importance of the Soviet Union’s survival, that grave crimes were to be laid at Koba’s door, there was always a trend that rejected this - as they saw it - ‘revisionism’. The ‘anti-revisionists’ took on many specific forms - notably Maoism in the 1960s and early 1970s and, after the Chinese essentially switched sides in the cold war, many later became devotees of the Albanian Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha.
Some stayed within the Soviet-loyal parties, however, and found themselves swept up with the Soviet-loyal ‘revisionists’, when a new enemy arrived in the form of Eurocommunism. In the British context, the word ‘tankies’ came to stick to the whole mass of those who defended the Soviet Union in either its Brezhnevite or Stalinite eras. The name referred specifically to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which the ‘tankies’ defended and the Euros abjured (as did the Maoists, ironically, since Mao et al saw it as a dress rehearsal for a similar attack on China).
The ‘Euros vs tankies’ account of the factional struggles in the Communist Party of Great Britain was always reductive, given the heterogeneity of the tankies. Many were simply down-the-line Soviet loyalists; some discreetly flew the flag for a more robust Stalinophilic outlook, such as Fergus Nicholson, the leader of the Straight Left faction, who wrote under the pen-name ‘Harry Steel’ after Harry Pollitt and Stalin. (Indeed, this paper’s predecessor, The Leninist, emerged originally from this milieu, although it ended up taking a far more critical view of the Stalinist countries than was typical for such factions.)
The CPB originated as a ‘softer’ pro-Soviet split from the CPGB, but, as the old party headed towards liquidation, it hoovered up many ex-Straight Leftists and others from the various tankie factions. It thus contains many, many older individuals who - if you get a couple of beers in them - will give you a stirring rendition of ‘Red fly the banners, O!’ or ‘the Soviet airman’s anthem’, and tell you that the problem is that not enough were purged and exiled in the 1930s; but its whole political practice remains based on promoting a politically timid, ‘broad left’ newspaper, the Morning Star, which can hardly afford open Stalinophilia in its pages. The older generation of tankies keeps its powder dry.
While all this was happening, some idiot invented the internet. Any alienated youth searching for a way out of declining bourgeois society’s murderous complacency had a near infinite menu of all the ideas, good and bad, that human ingenuity had ever come up with as an antidote, from Hitlerism to council communism. The appeal of Stalinophile politics may be interpreted in this context, as a form of revolutionary leftism that has the glamour of apocalyptic struggle in its history (in the form of the Eastern Front), and offers a joyously scandalous way out of the arid moralism of the present. As soon as two or three are gathered in his name, Stalin can make his mark again on politics in the internet age.
So far as that is an accurate characterisation of these troublesome YCLers - and there are doubtless shades of difference between the ‘true believers’ and those who merely enjoy hurling ice-pick memes in the general direction of annoying Trotskyists - the CPB has a tricky problem. On the one hand, it has its ultra-gradualist strategy, enshrined in the BRS programme, and embodied by the Morning Star. On the other, it is not the only game in town for young tankies: the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), whose unabashed Stalinophilia gives it a certain amount of morbid virility and which is certainly recruiting from similar layers, might rob it of a much needed infusion of youthful energy.
The social media protocol is, alas, a perfect example of CPB bureaucratic buffoonery. Whenever such speech codes rear their heads among those who call themselves Leninists, it is worth considering how a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov would have coped under their strictures. The CPB protocol comprehensively fails the Lenin test.
It demands that critics of CPB policy refrain from public dissent except in properly-authorised party organs and during the allowed pre-congress discussion period - which flies in the face of Lenin’s remorseless and unrelenting criticism, in any public avenue he could find, of his opponents in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the Bolshevik faction alike, from the 1890s until the revolution. It denounces the use of false names and anonymity as dishonest and cowardly, which is an instant fail in relation to anyone in the Russian movement. It insists on confidentiality in internal party proceedings, when the RSDLP published its proceedings as openly as circumstances allowed (with the enthusiasm of Lenin, who often urged his readers to confirm his perspective by consulting congress minutes and suchlike).
It forbids any discussion of the question of arms at all:
State surveillance (whether or not assisted by Google or Facebook) and anti-terrorism legislation make it essential that the party and its members do not publish or post anything that could be interpreted as support for the possession of weapons in Britain or for armed struggle at home or - except when explicitly endorsed by our party - abroad. Party members should make themselves aware of the home office list of proscribed terrorist organisations.
This, of course, puts the CPB wildly to the right not only of Lenin, but of Edouard Bernstein, the Labour Party in its very earliest years, and frankly almost any over-excited radical-liberal of our age, who may oppose gun rights at home, but tend to get misty-eyed about antifa activists and the people’s protection units of Kurdistan.
Every one of these commandments is the negative image of the sin it casts out. We can very well imagine the sort of carry-on that gave rise to each of them: the anonymous trolling of the drunk Red London creep; ‘Victory to Hezbollah!” sloganeering on the part of the simplistic anti-imperialist; grumbling and grousing about the CPB’s timidity outside the ‘proper channels’. Its response is, alas, about the least revolutionary imaginable, and certainly the least Leninist. Comrade Parker’s young correspondent notes: “I’ve heard the same joke dozens of times about the older generation of the CPB being ‘Trots without Trotsky’: buy the books, sell the paper, attend branch meetings, repeat.” Young CPBers are right to reject such routinism and timidity, even if the politics they offer as an alternative are hopeless.
And hopeless they certainly are. This is true of the narrow question of Stalin - it is not that apologists for the - ahem - excitement of the 1930s shall find no believers, they clearly exist. But it is one thing to recruit 300 Stalinites to the YCL, and quite another to win enough layers of wider society to that kind of politics to actually take power. What has online shock-value, ain’t going to make it in the real world. It is frankly unimaginable that people will vote for - let alone be prepared to die for - a repeat of the great purges and famines.
But it is also true of the questions of party regime, raised by the idiotic social media protocol of the CPB. In producing such a thing, they are merely entering their names in a long lineage of foolish leftwing attempts to suppress ‘factionalism’ rather than harnessing its intellectual energy for the benefit of the movement. We should expect splits but very few, if any, lessons will be learnt. For that there will need to be engagement elsewhere.
The text can be found on pages 4 and 5 of the September issue of the CPB members’ bulletin, Unity!: www.communistparty.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/September-2021-Unity_.pdf.↩︎