‘After the Party: Reflections on Life Since the CPGB’ edited by Andy Croft (Lawrence & Wishart, £15.99)
I am not, and never have been a Communist, and could never have joined a Party that had, in large part, never broken from Stalin. There are those, still, in the main successor organisation, the Communist Party of Britain who, like the hardliner Palme Dutt, see just “spots on the sun” in Stalin’s record. In a recent Morning Star one letter writer criticised the paper for including a gardening and cooking column (the latter wittily being “The Commie Chef”) drawing on the shade of Julius Martov as an example of what goes wrong when Bolsheviks show interest in such fripperies. Martov had been a leader of the left in the Mensheviks. That the letter writer, from revolutionary Sudbury of all places, did not feel the need to explain “Martovism” indicates, well, indicates something.
Andy Croft, editor of this collection of essays by former members of the Communist Party, writes a regular poetry column for the Star. He is the publisher at the left leaning Smokestack Books. The other contributors, few enough to mention individually, comprise Mark Perryman, the founder of the Philosophy Football T-shirt empire; Alistair Findlay, a rare openly leftist ex-professional footballer and poet; Stuart Hill, a Labour Councillor in the North East; Kate Hudson from CND; Andrew Pearmain a consultant in HIV/AIDS social care; Lorna Reith, deputy leader of Haringey Council; Dave Cope, who runs the second-hand book business Left on the Shelf.
What unites the group, a clever move by the editor, is that all of them spent serious time in the old CP yet were young enough to go on to other projects, other areas of politics. This enables each contributor to have a considered view without simply referring back to their glory days at the barricades – or if not the barricades, being a member of, say, the North West District committee of the Party. The contributions are inevitably varied in quality but all have interest. All are memoir, rather than straightforward history, and benefit from that, though once again Lawrence & Wishart (which was, incidentally, the main CP publishing house) is risking missed sales due to a high price.
Mark Perryman, a supporter of the Eurocommunist Marxism Today describes how the journal was able to provide a platform for large meetings in his native Dudley attracting “the kind of crowds the left in the area had not seen in decades”, which taught him “the necessity of rethinking the ways in which we ‘do politics’”. In his case this led to a career as a leftie entrepreneur. His links with Party history, however, remain. Indeed, the last time I saw him was at the Battle of Cable Street/Spanish Civil War anniversary weekend when Philosophy Football organised a social for the International Brigades Memorial Trust.
Kate Hudson, like several of the contributors, came from a Communist or trade union family. Unlike Perryman, Hudson mourns the absence of a traditional mass communist party that could provide much needed unity and leadership across the different struggles, specifically within the anti-cuts movement. Alistair Findlay, likewise mourns the absence of the Party, quoting Derrida “no future without Marx”, drawing on the Scottish literary traditions within which Marxists were so influential. It is hard to think of Scottish poetry without the “motley crew of political marxists, socialists, republicans and left nationalists” including Hamish Henderson, Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, Hugh MacDiarmid… and the influence of these and others (he includes Carol Ann Duffy in the pantheon) will sustain.
Andrew Pearmain’s article “Towards a marxist theory of love; or the personal is political” is perhaps the weakest in the collection. His article is less about theory, than an outline of his own heterosexual history within Party and student circles. His rather exciting life was rather at odds with that of other, more puritanical, members of the CPGB I came across. But Pearmain does, I think, give us more information than we need to know.
Lorna Reith, surprisingly, sees little evidence of the CP in modern political life. She faces the problems she has with making “Labour cuts” openly and honestly. As cabinet member for culture in Haringey her job is particularly difficult in the wake of the local “Baby P” case, yet she describes her local Labour Party in Tottenham as pretty moribund, with “lots of meetings with no obvious purpose”. She longs for the level of debate that once happened in the CP.
Dave Cope, on the other hand, finds that in Kendal, a rather large step from his previous address in Hackney, there is still scope for political action especially within what the CP would have called the “broad democratic alliance”. He is mostly active within the World Development Movement, which has engaged vicars and trade unionists, Christians and ex-communists. Stuart Hill, however, sounds tired. He is a councillor but has fallen out with the Labour Party and he will not stand again. This is not his first big fall out and he painfully describes how he was shafted by UNISON in the wake of equal pay campaigning.
Andy Croft tops and tails the volume. As editor his job is to remind us that at one time the Communist Party had 60,000 members with the Daily Worker once selling 120,000 copies. He lists the areas of life the CP influenced, from the aforementioned Battle of Cable Street through to the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival, the International Brigades and post-war squatting. Locally he describes the impact of the Party in Middlesbrough, where it was involved in everything from supporting the ANC through to a huge public meeting on the Cleveland child abuse case. His own post-1991 experience is summed up by his final two sentences; “The Communist Party, for all its comic-opera absurdity, its spectacular hubris and its self-defeating innocence, was a congenial and habitable political space that offered a way of participating in and belonging to the world. I want it back.”
My own experience of the Communist Party was through working with many talented individuals who knew how to relate to the public. Fellow members of Aberdeen and, later, Nottingham CND, the chair of a tenants association on the estate where I lived, the Eurocommunist Nottingham councillor John Peck… people who had roots in their communities and were widely respected, even by political enemies. By and large they were good company and never minded my individualist tendencies!
Andy Croft starts this collection of essays by quoting Brecht from The Measures Taken – ‘The Party can never be obliterated…’ though he could have ended by referring to Brecht’s flying tailor of Ulm, in the hope that when he finally does get his Communist Party back it might fly better next time.