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Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party.

John Murray x + 246 pp. 19.99 [pounds]

* Francis Beckett is a very experienced political journalist and Labour Party activist, familiar over many years with Communism and its stronger and weaker points; he has now been able to glean further information from Moscow archives until lately as impenetrable as those of MI5. His narrative rests on a good balance of the sympathetic and the critical. He sees Communism, in Britain at least, as defeated by inner dissensions as well as by enemies without, though he maintains that in other parts of the world it is still far from extinct. His book contains helpful explanatory notes and suggestions for further reading with each chapter. There are also photographs of the dramatis personae.

Beckett is particularly good at summing up his characters, chief among them Harry Pollitt, an outstanding leader with a human warmth and openness that too many lacked, or felt obliged to stifle under their heavy Bolshevik armour. He belonged to the working class, and never lost his loyalty to it; on the other hand he did not idealize it, as some comrades born outside it were apt to do. Very much his antithesis was his team-mate of many years, the indo-Swedish ascetic intellectual Palme Dutt, through thick and thin the faithful echo of Moscow. `One of the strangest and most compelling' of the Party's very diverse recruits, who became its chief industrial organizer, was Bert Ramelson, born in 1910 in the Ukraine, educated in Canada and a veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

When the Party set out in 1920 most of its founders were expecting revolution -- as the generals of 1914 expected victory -- within a few months. Moscow helped with money, but its advice, or rather instructions, were of a regularly unhelpful sort, especially in envenoming its relations with the Labour Party. Still, leaders like Pollitt were moving towards the idea of unity of the Left against fascism before Moscow lent its sanction, and of course long before the Tories saw anything to object to in it. `The CP's record against Franco and Mosley changed the Party's fortunes', and by 1939 it had a membership of some 18,000. This fell with the NaziSoviet pact, set to lyrical strains by Palme Dutt, but rose again with the Party's enthusiastic support for the war once Russia was forced into it and showed how it could be won.

This period was also the high point of Communism's galvanizing influence on Britain's lacklustre arts and culture: Beckett does justice to what it produced, in the Unity Theatre, and Left Review, and a bevy of gifted writers, though he observes that with some of these, like Day Lewis, Auden and Spender, Leftism was only briefly in vogue, apologized for before long `in languid, patrician tones'.

After the war, with Labour in office, the goal of revolution was tacitly exchanged for a more reformist outlook, of a kind, however, far too radical for the Labour leadership to digest. Their half-heartedness soon allowed the Conservatives to recover power. The CP expanded its lead on the industrial front; but lacking any realistic political prospects, its support for wage-claims and strikes could be criticized as no more than bread-and-butter economism. Trotskyite groups with no programme, except to clamour for a Revolutionary Government, were always snapping at its heels. In its final decade it was sinking into a civil war between conservative Muscovites and over-advanced Eurocommunists.

At various points the record of the British Communist Party is supplemented by the dozen essays in Opening the Books. These, like Beckett's book, also show a judicious blending of praise and blame. John Callaghan and Hakim Adi deal with colonial matters. A small CP could not do very much in this field, but it tried, and at least hoisted and kept flying the flag of anti-imperialism. Richard Croucher discusses the NUWM and other unemployed organizations. Alan Campbell writes of the inter-war Scottish coal-fields, scattered over four regions, which Communists did much to bring together in one militant Union.

Sue Bradley is very interesting on the Lancashire women who made up the majority of the county's over half a million cotton workers in 1913. She finds fault with the CP for neglecting, along with the Third International as a whole, the position of women as workers. Nina Fishman is equally good on the 1926-56 trade union movement as a whole. Communist doctrine was, as she says, that struggles for wage increases were the best means of mobilizing the working class for the conquest of power. Activists in the front line, however, too often had an opposite experience: after a successful contest workers would be content to relax and enjoy their pay-packets, and forget politics until the next time.

Andy Croft confirms the belief that this party generated more cultural energy than any other in Britain, in spite of its limited size and chronic disagreement about what writers ought to be doing. Mike Waite adds a well-informed study of the dubious youth culture of the 1960s, to which the Young Communist League did manage to impart something of a serious turn. Other chapters are concerned with the character and fortunes of the Daily Worker, the part played by ex-communists after Hungary in the New Left, and intellectual life in the 1970s.

James Hinton argues that in alliance with the Labour Party the CP could have helped to turn Britain after 1945 into a `developmental state' like France or Germany, with a government capable of kicking an inert, parasitic capitalism forward. its request for affiliation was narrowly defeated at the 1945 Labour Party conference, thanks largely to the virulent hostility of Herbert Morrison, that `cunning Cockney' and `machine politician' as Beckett calls him. Britain was the loser. But the CP, Eric Hobsbawm emphasizes in a postscript to Opening the Books, was a far from negligible force, and ought not to be forgotten. It may come to be remembered as the sole political organization in twentieth-century Britain which offered a real training-ground in both progressive thinking and practical effort to improve the human condition.
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Author:Kiernan, V.G.
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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