From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Manchester University Press £40
Harry Pollitt joined the infant British Communist Party at its inception in 1920. He was at that time a sincere and committed revolutionary.
By the late 1920s he had become the party’s leader. Pollitt’s tragedy, and the tragedy of the party itself, is that they so closely paralleled the events of the 1917 revolution – from socialism from below, to Stalinism and dictatorship from above.
Of course, the British party never had the same influence among workers that the Bolsheviks enjoyed in Russia. One crucial reason for this is the role played by Stalinism in influencing the British party’s development. As such the CP is a good lesson in how not build a revolutionary party – and that is the real purpose of studying Pollitt.
However, Kevin Morgan’s biography has major failings. Chief among them is that he is largely uncritical of Pollitt.
Pollitt’s political life can be outlined quite briefly. During his rise to the leadership of the party, the CP recruited among the best of a generation of working class militants and intellectuals. The material for a genuine revolutionary party was present. What was lacking was the correct perspectives and political will – due simply to the rampant Stalinism of the organisation. The CP moved from real internationalism – being an ally of the Russian Revolution – to becoming nothing more than an arm of the Stalinised party and, under Pollitt, a craven supporter of Russian domestic and foreign policy.
Pollitt, for instance, was one of Britain’s most rabid supporters of the Moscow trials, when Stalin liquidated his political opponents.
Pollitt’s greatest hour, well documented here, came shortly after the trials, when Russia entered the Second World War. Suddenly patriotism and a liking for Stalin were mutually conducive.
The CP’s curve of influence began its slow decline at the end of the war. Whilst the growth of Stalinism in the East ensured the party a degree of stability, the re-strengthening of social democracy, in particular the Labour Party, in the West meant it was cut off from real influence. At this crucial point the party, with Pollitt firmly in control, wrote its own suicide note. The adoption of the new programme, The British Road to Socialism, meant the party formally renouncing the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This document is claimed as Pollitt’s unique contribution to British Communism. In fact most of it was drawn up in Moscow under the direct influence of Stalin.
From now on the CP looked purely to cross class alliances and electoral politics as the only way to win power.
Pollitt ended his days as CP general secretary at a crucial turning point for the party, and for Stalinism itself – 1956. Khrushchev made his speech partially denouncing Stalin’s crimes. Pollitt, true to his master, tried to hush it up.
Kevin Morgan’s book begins to pull some of these events together, and the book is well worth a read, though far too expensive. But hopefully better is to come. The CP’s archives are now open and a really critical and thorough study of the party is needed. This book is rather too uncritical.
The history of Harry Pollitt is the history of the British CP itself – the wasting of thousands of working class militants and a dream betrayed.
Last updated: 1 March 2017