The Lost World of British Communism - Raphael Samuel


This book is a collection of writings for the New Left Review by Raphael Samuel, a tutor of History at Oxford University who died in 1996. A regular and respected writer for the Review in his later years, Samuel was also a dedicated member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for several decades since his teenage years in the 40s. It is from this background that Samuel draws this erratic but engrossing social history of the Party and its followers over the years.

And it is very much a social history, an examination of the minutiae of the life of party members; their attitude, their habits, the way they lived in the everyday. In many ways it reveals much more than dozens of dry descriptions of policy statements ever could. Samuel shows British Communism was a creed to live by, to be "brought up a Communist " entailed a whole way of life a sense of "otherness" and separation from the herd, just as to be brought up "a Jew" or "a Methodist" (though as Samuel shows there was a great deal of crossover with all three groups). In his warm and affectionately mocking descriptions of his family and their compatriots, party stalwarts in the Jewish East End of London, he paints a vivid portrait of a self-taught group of intensely serious, and indeed puritanical auto-didacts. A more genuinely working-class party than their counterparts in other nations (including Russia), the dour and sensibly dressed clan nevertheless self-consciously eschewed the pub, the dance-hall and the drink as distractions from the cause, which did wonders for their organisational skills but set themselves apart still further from the frivolous masses they sought to lead and educate. "I would never dream of being close friends with anyone outside the Party" says Samuel's mother at one point, an attitude he shows as very common among members.

Samuel wrote from a stance of semi but not total disillusion from the party, and in his descriptions, brought to life with a colourful myriad of examples, he skilfully shows both the great good and great bad in the Party. The CPGB played an invaluable role (greatly disproportionate to its size) in both solidifying class consciousness and bolstering the role of countless working-class campaigns over the years, its finest hours being the formation of the National Unemployed Workers Union which was instrumental in the Jarrow marches, and the enlisting of volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The intense fortitude of a group of self-taught working people who, from nowhere, immersed themselves in the most complex literature, and who fought in the most heroic way in the face of blacklisting and intimidation from employers is impossible not to admire. The fact the membership of the party was seemingly genuinely selfless, with none of the jumped-up primmadonnas prevalent in all the main parties comes over too.

The bad side; we know, or at least the worst bit. The insidious tying-in of the party to the personality cult of Stalin and its effective subordination to an increasingly corrupt and tyrannising regime (even such a respected figure as folk-singer Ewan MacColl is shown to have written a terrible piece of bombast entitled "The Ballad of Joe Stalin"). Samuel shows that the officious, centralising nature of the party was in fact in place before Stalin came to power. The principle of "Democratic Centralism" saw any criticism of the party line as suspect throughout the parties history, with expulsions for dissent a common feature since day one. The depressing effects of members having to defend the indefensible saw exoduses from the party following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the crushing of the Hungary uprising in 1956 and the repression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

By the 70s the party's influence had notably declined (Trotskyist groups had more clout among the left, energising campaigns like the Anti Nazi League), while their last foothold in the union movements was gone when Thatcher arrived. The party finally imploded before the fall of the Eastern European regimes with the dwindling rump split between the traditionalist working-class membership based around the Morning Star and the bright young "Eurocommunist" writers of Marxism Today. By this time Samuel saw the party as a spent force, but he showed more sympathy to the traditionalist than the style-obsessed controversialist Marxism Today crowd, who he rightly saw as chancers without substance (some of whom went on to form part of the New Labour clique, need we say more?)

It is not especially productive for the modern left to debate as to whether the "good" points of the CPGB were outweighed or not by their "bad". What perhaps is more insightful is to how they failed to gain even a semblance of truly mass support .Perhaps the most interesting of Samuel's many insightful observations on the make-up of the party membership was how small a milieu it eventually boiled down to, and how overwhelmingly the membership was dominated by engineers (the engineers union the AEEU was Communist controlled right until the 80s.) In effect the party hermetically sealed itself off into an upper-working class elite of skilled unionists, with an oft expressed contempt not only for the "lumpenproletariat", but for the habits of the working populace as a whole, effectively writing off vast swathes of the population. It scarcely got any support in "the slums"; its heartlands were the shipyards of the Clyde, amongst better of Protestants in Glasgow and the Jewish East End. With a savage irony, take away the unions and the ideology, and the sharp split between the membership and the unskilled masses finds an eerie mirror of the future division between the upper-working class who were to follow Thatcher, and the less-well-off they left behind.

In this book Raphael Samuel shows in this wonderfully written history and memoir, its puritanical party members stood aloof from the workers as a whole, and, on the whole, this attitude was returned in kind. The Communist Party is now part of history, and as the left reforms itself it should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of this heroic but ultimately misguided tribe.

[First published in Red Pepper, 2007]