An inferior brew

Issue: 108

John Newsinger

A review of Neil Redfern, Class or Nation: Communists, Imperialism and Two World Wars (Tauris Academic Studies, 2005), £47.50

Academic discussion of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) has in recent years been dominated by attempts to minimise the organisation’s subordination to Moscow. From this point of view the party’s twists and turns derive not from Stalin’s changing priorities, but from the demands of the class struggle at home.

Even the Third Period of ultra-left sectarianism has been explained and defended as a response to the exigencies of the struggle in Britain. Moscow’s instructions were, we are seriously expected to believe, of no great moment because the CPGB was in the process of developing the strategy and tactics of the Third Period of its own volition. And, amazingly, so was every other Communist Party throughout the world. This is so much nonsense. Moreover, CP members from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1950s would never have recognised themselves in the accounts provided by these ‘Moscow-lite’ historians. Moscow was the centre of their universe and they were proud to be Stalinists.

Indeed the very idea that they decided the party’s political direction themselves would have been regarded as a dangerous heresy. The fact that even The British Road To Socialism had to be cleared with Stalin personally is a bit of a clue here. Even the party’s reluctant repudiation of the man in 1956, it is worth remembering, only took place because of orders from Moscow!

While Moscow-lite is a very inferior brew, it can still cloud the senses and affect one’s judgement. Neil Redfern’s new book on the CP and British imperialism is a good example of this.

Redfern sets out to explain why the CP ‘enthusiastically supported the British war effort in the Second World War, given that most of its leaders had been militant opponents of the First World War’. He acknowledges the influence of the Soviet Union on the CPGB, but really only in passing, arguing that what was decisive was the way that Russian interests ‘dovetailed neatly with the ideological baggage’ that the party had ‘inherited from the Second International’. Whereas the party still had a ‘revolutionary orientation’ in 1935, by 1945 it had embraced ‘a new reformist strategy’ and ‘completed the transition from Bolshevism to Second International Marxism’. Socialism, for the CP, would now ‘grow organically out of mature capitalism rather than be the fruit of revolution’.

How is this reversion to ‘Menshevism’ (Redfern’s word) explained? Although his argument is not entirely clear, he seems to regard the hold of reformism and social imperialism over the labour movement as a product of the super-profits accruing from imperialism. This explains why the left was at best half-hearted in its opposition to imperialism and at worst supported it. It was this that created the material circumstances whereby the CP was relentlessly pulled away from the revolutionary politics of the 1920s back towards reformism and social imperialism.

Presumably the process was inevitable and it is difficult to see what role Redfern can conceive for revolutionaries in imperialist countries other than supporting national liberation struggles elsewhere. Anything else is Eurocentrist and indeed we are told that Trotskyism ‘was even more Eurocentrist than Stalinism’.

Leaving this aside, the main trouble is that, while he has much to say regarding the CP that is of interest (his discussion of the party’s response to the 1943 Tehran Conference is particularly impressive), his explanatory framework just does not work. There is too much it cannot explain and this leads him into contradiction, caricature and distortion. On the one hand, for example, the CP is condemned for giving its colonial work a low priority, but then when the CPer Ben Bradley was imprisoned in India in 1929, his motives are put down, at least in part, to paternalism. Evidence is ruthlessly bent into a shape that supports Redfern’s argument. This is not good enough.

Redfern seems unaware that the very question he tells us he intends to answer actually contradicts his central theses. He is primarily concerned to explain why the men who led the CP had opposed the First World War, but supported the Second. The fact is, of course, that his argument cannot explain how it was that these men (and women) came to oppose the First World War in the first place; indeed according to his thesis surely they can’t have opposed it because of the strength of reformism and social imperialism at the time. The difficulty derives from a general misunderstanding of reformism and its material basis that it is not possible to develop here. Let us instead look more particularly at his discussion of Stalinism.

Redfern emphasises that the CP was not a mindless puppet with its strings pulled by Moscow. This is his caricature of the Trotskyist critique. Instead he compares the Comintern to an orchestra with the various musicians willingly following the direction of the conductor. Leaving aside that it was not music that the Comintern made, this seems much closer to the Trotskyist critique than his earlier caricature. However, he goes on to give it a Moscow-lite spin. The CP, we are told, developed ‘primarily by its own internal dynamic’ and party members ‘were loyal to Moscow because they wished to be’. This misses the point. Subordination is still subordination, even if voluntary, and of course, the working out of this subordination was central to the party’s internal dynamic.

The importance of loyalty to the Soviet Union is clearly demonstrated when we look at the CP during the Second World War. It did not rally to the empire when war broke out in September 1939. Why? Because the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. It did rally to the empire in June 1941. Why? Because Nazi Germany had attacked the Soviet Union. Loyalty to the Soviet Union was decisive, not the party’s reformism or social imperialism.

Similarly with the post-war period, even though the CP wholeheartedly embraced reformism, the Cold War saw it subordinate that strategy to the defence of the Soviet Union. How does Redfern explain this? The best he can come up with is that defence of the Soviet Union ‘was a specific and extreme manifestation of Eurocentrist tendencies’. This is stretching his argument to and beyond breaking point.

To sum up, there is much of interest in this book and it is written very much from the left unlike other Moscow-lite histories. Its failure to make an explanation of Stalinism central to its argument, however, leads it seriously astray.