Dorothy Thompson: The Communist Party of Great Britain


Note: This foreword was written for a book about the Communist Party of Great Britain but wasn't used in the end.

In writing a foreword to this work of considerable scholarship and research I must first make a disclaimer. The book is clearly part of an increasing body of Communist party historiography, most of it written since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of some at least of the Moscow and other archives on which it is based. Any contribution I have to make to the story is based for the most part on that most unreliable of all historian's sources, personal recollection. I was born a year after the CPGB was founded, joined it in the late thirties and was a member for seventeen years at the time of its highest membership – the forties and fifties of the last century. I left, together with a very large number of friends, colleagues and fellow socialists in the year in which the ideology and structure of the party and its fellow-travelling organizations changed and the decline in membership began which appears to have ended finally in 1981. After 1956 I became a member of what we used to describe as the biggest party in the country, the ex-party.

In the six decades of its life the CPGB never became what was at times its declared aim, a mass party, but a very large number of people joined it or worked closely with it for a part of their lives. In this volume the authors have begun to put some flesh on the membership statistics by examining the personal records of a considerable number of individual members. The note on sources at the end indicates the variety and extent of the archival and printed matter which is now available; to this they have added interviews with surviving former members from a number of generations.

Like all serious works of scholarship the authors raise many questions, to only some of which they suggest answers. This is a contribution to a sometime history of the twentieth century, and looks at some of the sociological definitions of popular movements. It has captured oral evidence which would not otherwise have been available to later historians and which will certainly be an important source for a historical assessment of the role than communism played in the politics of twentieth century Europe and of the developing nations outside Europe. For some of us, perhaps, there is not a clear enough picture here of the interaction of British communism with movements in colonial and post-colonial countries. In the armed forces and in wartime universities we met comrades from other parts of the empire, and got to understand a great deal more about the movements in which they took part and in many cases led. Both my husband E.P. Thompson and I for instance first knew Palme Dutt as author of India Today and friendships that we made as students with communists from Africa, India and Latin America lasted for many years after the end of the war. Many of those friends cooperated in later years in anti-nuclear movements and other peace activities.

One of the questions raised in this study is the extent to which membership of the communist party resembled adhesion to a church or religious sect. Some of the published reminiscences in Britain and the United States certainly give that impression. The book re-examines the suggestion and to a degree – to my mind quite rightly – casts some doubt on it. In social life members of the CPHG tended not to lead the circumscribed life of members of a religious community, but took part in the wider social activities of their communities and work places. There was, however, a strongly religious element in the belief system which underlay party membership. Revealed truth derived from sacred texts and a strong teleological belief in the essential path towards the perfect community underlay the political actions of most of the members. The essential future of mankind involved the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by first a socialist system enforced by the dictatorship of the proletariat and finally, with the withering away of the state, by the classless society of communism which would be the end of pre-history and the beginning of the essential struggle – the battle between mankind and the natural world. This was the basic outline of the 'dialectical materialism' taught in CP educational courses, and it undoubtedly contributed to the deliberate blindness of many of us to the abuse of state power in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In those countries they had at least made the vital step from private to public ownership of the means of production. This had to be the potential basis of a better society, whatever the “shortcomings” of the Leninist/Stalinist regime. Marx himself found that Darwin's theory of evolution allowed for progress without teleology, and the slogan “Socialism or Barbarism” implied an element of choice, nevertheless the sense that communism embodied historical inevitability, that, as one leading comrade once told me “truth is what helps forward the class struggle” underlay the political motivation of most party members.

Another element in the mindset of those who joined the party, which perhaps does not always come out clearly in the reminiscences used here, but which I and other comrades and ex-comrades of my generation with whom I have discussed the question remember from the decade before the second war, is the extent to which European and American capitalism appeared to have come to the end of the road. Nazism appeared to be a final desperate stage of capitalism, imperialism which had served to reinforce domestic capitalism in its last stages was beginning to unravel. The empire was becoming more costly to defend and maintain against revolutionary movements within and the demands of the Fascist states from outside. The United States was in a deep depression with eighteen million workers unemployed and with black workers in the southern states subjected to oppression and indignity on the level of the subjects of the worst parts of the European overseas empires. If there was a beacon of hope in the world it was the “new civilization” in the east. When Picasso joined the communist party it was because its members were “the brave ones”. The archives reveal things about the manipulation by the Commintern and by some communist leaders of the international brigades in the Spanish civil war and of the resistance movements in Europe during the Nazi occupation. Nevertheless, for most of us the communists were the leading fighters against Nazism and Fascism – the first occupants of the concentration camps whose existence many powerful figures in Britain denied until after war was declared, and the only political group who opposed the Chamberlain appeasement policy.

Individuals in other parties also opposed it, of course, notably Eden and Churchill, but in my town it as the Communists who called a public meeting to explain why Eden had resigned over the issue. It has also to be remembered here that for many powerful politicians the war they wanted to see was a war between Hitler and Stalin. I listened to Churchill's speech on 22 June 1941 in our garden in South London, having just returned from a meeting in South London at which Ted Willis wept when he spoke about the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. We were all in suspense about the possible British response. In the remaining years of the war the communists in Europe and the Soviet Union were heroic figures and membership of the party rose so quickly that I remember being told that in Coventry they could not keep up and record all those who wanted to sign up.

In spite of the admiration for the Red Army and the great increase in Communist Party membership during the war years, only two communists were elected to the House of Commons in 1945. Both of them came from constituencies with strong historical and ethnic reasons to elect communists. In East London as the account in Chapter two shows, there was a strong Jewish communist presence which produced local councillors as well as a communist Member of Parliament. The Fife miners had a long socialist tradition and continued to elect communists to the union leadership for decades. In the rest of the country it seemed that the electorate was not prepared to trust communists to represent them in Parliament although they continued to elect them at the workplace as shop stewards and union officials. I worked in a number of constituencies for communist candidates and found the same response; often personal respect for the candidate, but a general unwillingness to trust them in parliament. Russia was regarded with suspicion. There were, however, a number of communists who were elected as Labour candidates. The 1945 election found many constituencies without obvious candidates and people coming back from the forces sometimes stood simply to provide a candidate in an unlikely seat. The landslide left a number of very surprised members, among whom were at least five who had not renewed their party membership after the compulsory relinquishment in the armed forces and so found themselves drafted into a career in labour politics.

This leads me to a final point. None of the reminiscences here recorded is the personal account of an “underground” member. As a sixth-former I used to work as a volunteer in the evenings at the YCL headquarters in London. Before I went up to Cambridge I met the student organizer and some of the CP student leaders. I was asked if I was prepared to do a job which would mean hiding the fact that I was a party member. I replied that as I regularly sold Challenge in Bromley High street and was a member of the Inter Schools Committee, many of whom were also YCLers some of them coming to Cambridge, I could not very well be a secret member. When I got to Cambridge however I found that there were several such members who held positions in 'non-party' organizations such as the NUS. In my years in the CP I came across a good many such people; it would not have been very difficult to winkle out most of them if intelligence systems were working and in any case they probably did not represent a threat to any one. Nevertheless “under cover” work formed a part at least of the political lives of many comrades, among them the most committed party members. They were part of the “front” activity and should perhaps show up somewhere in the social history of the CP membership. There is very little here either about some of the quite widespread and influential “front” organisations in which many of us spent our political lives.

British communists were never faced with one problem which faced party members in France and Italy. In those countries in 1956 to leave the CP meant to cut off connections with a major political force in their countries. A French journalist with whom I discussed the question answered with a splendid subjunctive – Que ce que tu veux que je fasse? Was he to give up his job on huma and cut himself off from the working people or to continue to work with what he knew to be one of the most sectarian of the European communist parties and try and change some of its worst aspects. In the USA people I spoke to in 1998 were still horrified when I asked if they had been CP members in the thirties and would not answer. In Britain leaving the party was on the whole a liberating experience and open membership of the CP at any stage in life does not seem to have held people back from careers in politics and in academe. Those who never admitted to membership but who accepted the discipline and instructions of the CP still remain shadowy figures. It is perhaps still too soon to evaluate the extent of the influence of the CPGB in its short lifetime but this volume should provide a valuable social dimension to the party's history.

For more information on Dorothy Thompson and her husband, historian E.P. Thomspon, visit here.