copyright Geoffrey Roberts, Department of History, University College, Cork
Article publié dans Chronicon (THANKS TO CORK UNIVERSITY)
1. To a generation of left-wing historians and political activists the Second World War was a defining, iconic moment in British political history---an era of profound social, economic and cultural transformation and a unique period of popular political radicalisation. Ralph Miliband wrote of `a popular radicalism ... eager for major, even fundamental changes in British society after the war', while E. P. Thompson perceived a `high-water-mark in the morale and consciousness of British working people ... a great number of [whom] aspired to place each particular reform within the totality of an egalitarian, socialist society'.2
2. In the 1980s and 1990s that traditional image of wartime politics and radicalisation has been challenged from a number of points of view. Social and cultural historians have cast doubt on the extent to which national popular mobilisation for war disrupted traditional patterns of class and social relations and have also emphasised the diversity of wartime personal experiences and individual attitudes---by no means all of which pointed in a progressive, collectivist direction.3 One particular group of historians have launched a full-scale frontal assault on the view that there was a massive swing to the left during the war. They argue that although a minority of people did embrace radical politics and social reform, popular attitudes and opinion were shot through with political apathy, indifference and cynicism, with demands for the satisfaction of short-term needs rather than the creation of a new society, and with an orientation to a private and individual existence not social solidarity and participation in the public sphere.4 In a review of the psephological evidence two political scientists have claimed that Labour's victory in the 1945 General Election was not so much a matter of wartime politics as of demographics and the generational transmission of voting preferences---that the swing to the left was the result of more of the 1945 voter cohort having grown up in labour-voting households.5
3. These revisions of the traditional historiography of wartime Britain have not gone unchallenged. Bill Schwarz and James Hinton, for example, have argued that there was far more idealism and popular political engagement and mobilisation than the revisionists are prepared to acknowledge.6
4. In this developing debate surprisingly little attention has been paid to the fortunes of the British Communist Party during the war. Yet the years 1941-1945 were the zenith of the communist challenge in British politics and the party's role and experience during the people's war provides striking evidence of both the extent and limits of popular radicalism during the 1940s. The Communist Party was one of the main beneficiaries of war radicalism and, in so far as there was a turn to the left, and important contributor to the shift in political opinion. As Geoff Ely has argued:
In its wartime campaigning, which combined a kind of democratic patriotism with a generous-minded anti-fascist internationalism and the social egalitarianism of the demand for a strong welfare state, the Party represented better than any other single political tendency the radical version of the British people's desire for a different postwar future.7
5. This neglect of the communist dimension of wartime politics and radicalisation is perhaps the result of the party's failure in the 1945 election, when it won only two seats and a 100,000 or so votes. Because of this failure the perception is that the Communist Party didn't really matter in the end8 and that whatever its achievements in industry, the trade unions and the labour movement, it did not succeed in establishing a `civic presence' in British politics.9 However, party General Secretary Harry Pollitt's claim in 1944 that `we are a political force in Britain, our mass influence is growing rapidly, we represent important sections of public opinion'10 was based on more than just hyperbole.
6. The war was a period of unprecedented and impressive political achievement for what had hitherto been a fringe party of the left. Some 70,000 people joined the party and the Young Communist League between 1941 and 1945. Not everyone stayed in the movement for very long but party membership tripled from under 20,000 to well over 50,000 during this period.11 According to the opinion polls national electoral support for the party ranged from 2% to 5%---commendable figures for an organisation whose strength was concentrated in a few areas such as London, Scotland and South Wales. In May 1945 one poll indicated that 55% of voters would support a popular front of Labour, Liberals, Communists and the Commonwealth Party. It was also reported that 18% of voters would be more inclined to support communist-backed candidates.12 This small but noteworthy degree of national popular support was not reflected in the General Election. More indicative of the party's public standing are the results of a series of local elections in 1945-1947. Over half a million people voted for the party, resulting in the election of 215 county, borough and district communist councillors.13 Other indicators of popular political support include a Daily Worker circulation of 100,000 and a readership perhaps five times higher.14 As to `civic presence', there is plenty of evidence that the party's campaigning and propaganda activities had considerable impact and currency at the local level of politics and society.15
7. During the war British communists came close to establishing a mass, radical party of the left in Britain. This was possible because of a number of favourable wartime contexts and conditions---most notably the limited but real radicalisation of popular attitudes, values and expectations---but also because during the war the party underwent an internal political and organisational transformation which enabled it to grasp the opportunities for growth. Ultimately, the party failed to make the breakthrough to a mass communist party achieved by some of its continental counterparts in the postwar period. This failure reflected the strength of numerous obstacles to further communist expansion---such as the resounding political success of the Labour Party in 1945---and was compounded by various policy mistakes and miscalculations by the party. But, more fundamentally, the limits of the party's success were the limits of the popularity of the radical future for which it stood. The party's political project during this period was the realisation of a popular democratic state capitalism founded on active citizenry---a sort of 1940s version of people's power and participatory democracy. It was, in the context of its time, the most attractive and most feasible programme ever presented by the socialist left to the British people. Its failure to gain any real political purchase is, in many ways, the best evidence there is of the limited nature of the `1945 Revolution'.
8. This article will trace the evolution of the party's policy, organisation and strategy from June 1941 to the General Election of July 1945. Its aims is to tell the story of wartime politics from the party's point of view, to show how it attempted to capitalise on the radical mood that infected a section of the population and to suggest why it was that the communist success in building something approaching a mass radical party of the left proved to be such a fragile and transitory phenomenon.
9. Perhaps the most striking conclusion of this study of the party's own narrative of its wartime experience and progress is the extent to which it anticipates the historical revisionism of the 1980s and 1990s. Engaged in the practical task of building a mass movement for the radical transformation of British society, party leaders and members were not wont to exaggerate the extent of political change or to underestimate the difficulty of realising their political project.
Mobilising for War, 1941-1942
10. The most distinctive feature of communist politics during the Second World War was its total support for the British war effort and its uncompromising and unconditional support for national unity around the Churchill Government. In 1942 Harry Pollitt told the party's national conference: `this is our war, for undeniably the working class would lose more by the victory of fascism, and gain more by its defeat than any other section of the community.'16
11. Although for Pollitt the anti-fascist war had always been `our war', the same was not true for the party as a whole. When war broke out in September 1939 the party initially adopted a pro-war position. Pollitt himself published a pamphlet How to Win the War which urged national mobilisation in support of a just war against Nazi aggression and the threat to democracy. However, following pressure from the Communist International in Moscow, this position was abandoned in October 1939 and Pollitt resigned as General Secretary of the party. Thereafter, and until the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, the party opposed the war on the grounds that it was an inter-imperialist conflict in whose outcome the working class had no interest. This position was modified somewhat after the German conquest of western Europe in 1940 but the party remained committed to a campaign for a `people's government'---a campaign directed as much at the `reactionary' National Government at home as the fascist threat from abroad.17 Even after the launch of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941 the party's line on the war remained equivocal. In a press statement on the day of the invasion the party urged `solidarity with the Socialist Soviet Union', but stated that it had `no confidence in the present government, dominated by Tory friends of fascism and coalition Labour leaders' and called for a people's government, a people's victory over fascism and a people's peace.18 However, a pamphlet written by Pollitt and published on 26 June, Smash Hitler Now, omitted the call for a people's government. Instead it highlighted demands for a clearing out of pro-fascist elements within the Churchill Government. This was the line too of a Manifesto on the war issued in the name of the central committee of the party on 4 July.19 A confidential circular to party members explained:
The decisive guideline in the present political situation is the attitude of effective collaboration with the Soviet Union ... the main concentration must therefore be on the mass fight for positive measures of collaboration ...
While we continue to advocate a People's Government as representing the only final guarantee for the interests of the people, and a People's Peace as the outcome to which we wish to reach, these slogans do not correspond to the immediate stage of the present fight.20
12. However, this position also proved to be only a staging post on the way to a policy of full support for the Coalition Government. The abandonment of the people's government line was unveiled by Pollitt---by now restored to his position as party leader---in a letter to party branches on 8 July 1941:
Our fight is not directed against the Churchill Government but those who are secret friends of Hitler. ... the fact that the Churchill Government and the Soviet Union are now fighting side by side ... is the outstanding feature of the situation. ... This is why in supporting the Churchill Government we do it wholeheartedly without any reservations, without harping on the disagreements of the past, or raising the fundamental differences between the Communist Party and other political parties.21
13. By mid-July 1941 the party had adopted a position on the war from which there would be no wavering. Communists would participate in and mobilise for national unity against fascism on the basis of unconditional support for the Coalition Government.22 The only qualification to this commitment was the party would fight within the National Front for those policies it considered necessary for victory. The main demands of the party in this respect were Anglo-Soviet unity, the opening of a Second Front, increased production, equality of sacrifice in the war effort, and a reconstructed government that would include more genuine representatives of anti-fascist unity. It was around these themes and demands that much of the party's campaigning in 1941-1942 centred.23
14. The first of the party's big wartime campaigns was the fight for Anglo-Soviet Unity. The party's call for international solidarity with the Soviet Union sparked off a wave of trade union resolutions, telegrams, mass meetings in factories, pro-Russia demonstrations, public campaigning by party organisations, and the establishment of a network of broad-based Anglo-Soviet Unity Committees.24 In early August, the party's National Organiser, David Springhall, eulogised:
The political campaign in support of Anglo-Soviet joint action ... has continued to grow and develop in volume and strength. ... The general range of propaganda is amazing both in its variety and in the phenomenal response which is being aroused. Report following report indicating that in town after town and village after village where political meetings have not been held for many months, a great political revival is taking place.25
15. The second great campaign of 1941-1942 was for the opening of a Second Front in Western Europe. As early as August 1941 the party was calling for an invasion in the west which would relieve the German pressure on the Red Army on the Eastern Front.26 The high point of this campaign came in mid-1942 when in a single week Pollitt addressed two mass meetings of 50,000 in Trafalgar Square and 33,000 people attended 80 meetings held simultaneously over the country.27
16. A third area of party activity in this period was the fight to remove the ban on the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. Banned for anti-war agitation under defence regulation 2D in January 1941 the paper only resumed publication in August 1942 following an extensive campaign by the party. After 22 June 1941 the main argument deployed by the party was that a resumption of publication would help the war effort.28 This had a dramatic effect on mass support for the campaign. Just before 22 June the support of trade unions representing a million workers was being claimed by the campaign.29 A month later that figure had increased to 3 million and a month after that a Back the Daily Worker petition of a million and half signatures was presented to Parliament.30 A Gallup Poll of late 1941 revealed that 43% favoured lifting the ban against 37% who were for its retention.31 In May 1942 the Labour Party conference supported a resolution to lift the ban. Facing almost certain defeat at the September TUC, Morrison, the Labour Home Secretary, was forced to rescind the banning order.32
17. In the midst of all this frantic activity and campaigning success the party was experiencing the most spectacular growth in its history. In the first months after 22 June membership grew markedly with little organised effort. Perhaps the first straw in the wind was the recruitment of 362 members at a party birthday rally in Manchester in August 1941. From June to November 1941 the London District more than doubled its membership (to 9000) and all party districts recorded significant increases in recruitment rates. By January 1942 total party membership stood at a reported 22,738.33
18. Faced with clear evidence of recruiting possibilities the party decided to mount an organised membership campaign. The first three months of 1942 were designated a `Unity for Victory' recruiting period with the aim of getting 15,000 new members.34 Spearheading this campaign was a pamphlet by Bill Wainwright on Why You Should Be a Communist. The pamphlet sold 300,000 copies and 25,000 members were recruited.35 Assessing the results of the campaign in May 1942, Springhall wrote that the `party has been transformed into a powerful new force in British political life'.36
The Battle for Production
19. Overshadowing all communist campaigning in 1941-1942 was the initiation and development of the party's greatest contribution to the British war effort---the drive for production. In its Manifesto of 4 July 1941 the party called for the organisation of production for victory. This initial call developed into a full-scale political campaign for increased production over the summer of 1941. In early August the Daily Worker sponsored a production conference attended by 81 shop stewards. This was shortly followed by conferences organised by the Labour Research Department and the Young Communist League.37 In October 1941 the Engineering and Allied Trades Shop Stewards National Council (EATSSNC)---a party-led rank and file organisation---convened a production conference in London. 1,237 delegates from 300 factories representing a half a million workers heard and echoed the call for maximum production for the fight against fascism.38
20. The origins the party's drive for production can be traced to communist agitation around production issues in the pre-June 1941 period. Following Hitler's blitzkrieg in Western Europe in summer 1940 the party adopted a line of workers' defence against the threat of fascist invasion. In line with this policy the party supported increased production. However, all problems in production were laid at the feet of the bosses, nor was there any question of working class sacrifices in support of the war effort. The party also raised the demand for workers' control of industry as the only certain way of securing national defence against Nazi attack.39
21. Before the attack on the Soviet Union, in 1940-1941, party propaganda and agitation in industry combined productioneering with the traditional rhetoric of class militancy.40 For a short period after 22 June these themes continued to dominate the public politics of the party production campaign, typified by attacks on the vested interests of employers and managerial resistance to popular involvement in solving production problems, and silence when it came to any question of working class sacrifices in the interests of the war effort.41 Increasingly, however, the general propaganda blast against employers and managers gave way to more specific indictments of `monopoly interests' and bad bosses. An emphasis on co-operation with management and the common interests of workers and employers replaced militancy and class rhetoric. Most important of all was the growing theme of the need for working class responsibility and initiative in the production drive. In a letter to members on 20 August 1941 the Secretariat argued `it will not do for workers to wait for the Government and employers to move ... the workers must come forward now with their own proposals for increasing output and must insist that the management remove all obstacles within the workshop which prevent these proposals being carried out.'42
22. In line with this shift from oppositionism to positive collaboration in industry was the party's rejection of demands from within the production movement for worker's control and nationalisation. In July 1941 CP publicist Jack Own was convinced that the production campaign `unquestionably will lead the worker towards control in industry.'43 A year later Owen was preaching the virtues of scientific management and arguing that `a measure of control must come with our measure of responsibilities---not before.'44
23. In its production campaign the party had no hesitation in criticising obstructive trade union and employee practices. As a Merseyside delegate to the EATSSNC Conference argued `if we're going to indict the management then we've got to put our own house in order.'45 In An Urgent Memorandum on Production published in March 1942 the party stated that it had,
... no intention of fixing criticism in isolation on the faults of management or government policy, while ignoring the responsibilities on the side of workers. On the contrary, the Communist Party has been in the forefront of the fight to combat these shortcomings, to overcome every obstacle--whether craft prejudice, trade union sectionalism or conservatism, suspicion of and opposition to necessary changes, such as the introduction of women into industry, or a narrow view of workers' interests or in slackness---which stands in the way of maximum production.46
24. In the memorandum47 the party called for effective state control of war industries, centralised planning of production, equality of sacrifice in the war effort, a fair national wages' policy and improved working conditions. In addition, the party emphasised the need for a continuation of the political campaign for production because it recognised `that no measures of improved planning or control can alone solve the problem [of production]. The decisive role must be played by the workers at the bench, in the mines, on the railways, in the docks and the shipyards, intensifying their efforts in close co-operation with the technicians, the managements and the Government.'
25. In the party's view the two key agencies for working class participation in the battle for production were the JPC movement and the trade unions.
26. Although Joint Production Committees (JPCs) predated the German attack on the USSR it was only when communists in industry decided to back them that the movement really took off. By 1944 there existed some 6,000 JPC-type bodies representing 7 million workers. According to James Hinton at their wartime height some 20,000 trades unionists may have served on the JPCs.48 In 1941-1942 the party perspective on the role of the JPCs centred on the provision of a framework for industrial co-operation, efficiency, discipline and working class self-sacrifice. Later in the war JPCs came to be cast as grassroots organs of working class democratic initiative, participation and control. As Pollitt argued in How to Win the Peace in 1944:
The workers in the Joint Production Committees have gone further than ever before in getting a say in the actual organisation of production. They have begun to check, control and constructively improve on the organisation of the nation's productive machine. ... We have learnt during the war that `managerial functions' are not a magic sixth sense ... We have learned we can do more than sell our labour, we can begin to bargain about what we will make, and how much of it, the price at which it is to be sold and the profit that can be made from it.49
27. That was the theory. On the ground it appears that JPCs functioned as much as vehicles for the extension of trade union practice as primal institutions of industrial democracy.50 Indeed, the party itself stressed the connection between production and trade union policy. In a series of wartime memoranda on trade unionism51 the party argued that the drive for production and the growth of trade unionism were linked by the JPCs generation of workshop organisation and their erosion of managerial prerogatives. In order to secure and extend these gains the trade unions had to involve themselves in production matters and in the work of JPCs.
28. One final aspect of party production policy needs to be mentioned here: the party's attitude to strikes. In the interests of the war effort the party opposed strike action. `Under no circumstances will we countenance strikes', the Political Bureau's Weekly Letter to officials and key activists stated in July 1942.52 Although the party was not always successful in implementing this policy---there were a number of famous strikes during the Second World War53--the general picture is one of a high level of labour discipline. `The yearly average amount of time lost during the war years 1939-1945', reported the Ministry of Labour in 1946, `was approximately 35% of what it was during the previous war years 1914-1918 and about 58% of the yearly average for the 12 years 1927-1938 ... '.54 In the context of a bigger labour force, the spread of trade unionism, and full employment, this was a significant achievement. Moreover, a large number of the days lost during the war were in the mining industry---which had a particular set of problems.55 The party's contribution to labour discipline is difficult to quantify since only its failures to stop strikes tend to be reported. But it seems likely that the argument that workers could get what they wanted without strikes had a wide currency and that Pollitt's injunction that strikebreaking was striking a blow against fascism resonated far beyond the ranks of the Communist Party.
The Battle for Unity
29. The party's production campaign, like all its policies and actions in 1941-1942, flowed from its conviction that the only political task of the day was to win the war. As crucial to victory as increased production was the battle for national unity. In a book published in June 1942 R. P. Dutt, the party's intellectual guru,56 explored the problems and prospects for the construction of a National Front around the Churchill Government.57
30. For Dutt the objective basis for national unity lay in the interest of all classes and sections of the nation in the defeat of fascism. However, the possibilities for national unity were being undermined by the absence of popular-democratic mobilisation for war:
We need more democracy not less. We need the fullest scope for the initiative and creative energy of the people. ... The defeat of the fascist onslaught requires full and conscious participation of the masses of people. ... an effective war against fascism can only be a progressive democratic war.
31. To achieve this the people's war had to be given practical democratic substance. One of the obstacles to the realisation of this aim was an essential passivity that Dutt detected in the British people, which he located deep in the traditions and history of British society. He argued for `a new approach ... a break with old forms and paralysing limitations, a drastic change in the whole outlook and way of life in this country, a raising of the energies and initiatives of the masses of people that has never been done before.' To achieve this the existing National Front had to be transformed into `the real living unity of the entire nation'. The weakness of the National Front, Dutt argued, was
... its formal character of a collaboration of the official machines of the older parties; it makes no attempt to reach out to the web of organisations of the people, social, economic, sporting, religious or political, of youth, of women; it makes no attempt to draw in the practical participation of the masses of active men and women of all parties and no party.
32. Crucial to transforming national unity was the role of the working class. Potentially the working class had the strength, organisation, politics, and interests to play a decisive role within the National Front. But in order for the working class to play its proper role the labour movement had to be united: `Within the framework of national unity there is not yet working class unity. This is a grave and dangerous contradiction ... All the difficulties of the present political situation arise from the fact that there is not yet a strong and united working class movement fulfilling that active and leading role within the united national front which it can and should fulfil'.
33. Dutt's analysis of national unity pointed in two directions: towards a grand project of wartime mass participatory democracy, or, more narrowly, to the construction of a united front in the labour movement, which meant, effectively, the pursuit of a Labour-Communist alliance. It is possible that Dutt himself had tendencies in the first direction.58 The choice of the party, however, was the second approach. In December 1942 the CP renewed its application for affiliation to the Labour Party.
Communism and the Labour Party
34. The party's decision to launch a campaign for affiliation came at a time when the party was committed to subordinating all politics to the war effort and at a moment when communists were ending their marginalisation in the labour movement. It was prompted by the experience of local co-operation with the Labour Party in the campaigning field and by the party's growing strength and influence in official trade union circles. Strategically and politically it was prompted by the crucial role ascribed to left unity in the construction of progressive national unity and, more traditionally, by the desire to exercise influence over Labour Party policy. But why left unity in the form of affiliation? Typically, Dutt's writings provided the most sophisticated analysis and arguments.
35. In The Road to Labour Unity59 Dutt examined the historical development of the Labour Party. According to Dutt, the Labour Party was formed out of an alliance between trade unions and socialist organisations to represent working class interests in Parliament. In the process of historical development that alliance had `temporarily broken down, or rather, has been artificially disrupted'. The source of this disruption was the ideological influence of Fabianism which had triumphed in the face of an underdeveloped British Marxist tradition. Affiliation was aimed at reestablishing the alliance between socialists and trade unions. The Communist Party would fill the space left by the decline and eventual departure of the ILP from the Labour Party---only this time the socialists and revolutionaries would establish their hegemony. Dutt's confidence that this would be the case was based on a comparison between CP and ILP strength:
The Communist Party has 65,000 members ... The significance of that total in the development of the political working class movement is outstanding when it is borne in mind that the old ILP, at a time when it held the key position in the Labour Party with a majority of Labour MPs, had only 30,000 members.
36. The urgency of the political task of re-forming the socialist-trade union alliance in the Labour Party was underlined by the perception that the relationship between Labour and the trade unions was in the process of breaking down. Labour during the war, said Dutt, was in organisational decline and drifting away from the trade unions.
37. Communist affiliation to the Labour Party would have entailed the co-existence of two political parties within a single framework. Dutt thought that was possible because of the unique federal character of the Labour Party. Labour, he argued, was not a unitary party like its continental social democratic counterparts. Absent from Dutt's analysis, however, was any real consideration of the impact of the introduction of individual membership in 1918 on the federal character of the Labour Party nor did he consider the possibility that during the course of its historical development the Labour Party had developed its own distinct interests, ideology, practices and traditions---ones very different from those of the Communist Party. Despite its Left-Right conflicts, even in the 1940s the Labour Party was more of a unitary party than Dutt thought. Given this it is likely that affiliation would have resulted in either a loss of communist political identity or a split between the social democratic and socialist trends in the Labour Party and in the trade unions.60
38. In the event the consequences of communist affiliation to the Labour Party remained a matter of speculation. Despite a tremendous campaign the June 1943, Labour Party conference rejected affiliation by 1,951,000 to 712,000 votes.61
Preparing for Peace, 1943-1944
39. Until the end of 1942 the Communist Party strongly resisted moves to focus political attention on what would happen after the war. Winning the war was more important than anything else, argued the party. Discussions about the nature of the postwar social order were considered divisive at a time when the outcome of the worldwide struggle against fascism was undecided and the great issues of production, the Second Front, and popular mobilisation for war remained problematic. The peace, the party argued, would be determined by political advances registered during the course of winning the war. This was the way forward for progressive opinion.
40. During the course of 1943, as victory became more certain, the party came to accept the view that plans for the peace could have an important impact on the war effort and that it was necessary to be prepared for the practical problems that would arise when the war ended. An initial shift in the party position came in the wake of the popular response to the publication of the Beveridge Report on Social Security in November 1942.62 The Political Bureau welcomed the Beveridge proposals and urged that the Government implement them immediately.63 The Daily Worker published extensive extracts from the report and lauded Beveridge himself. An editorial warned of the dangers of diverting attention from war issues, but urged the enactment of the report as soon as possible.64
41. Despite this positive public response the party's commitment to Beveridge had its limits. Significantly, a specific call for a campaign to force the government to introduce legislation was deleted from Dutt's original draft of the Political Bureau's statement on the report.65 On the other hand, party leaders did move to formulate a response to growing popular pressure for definite commitments about the future. At the end of December 1942 the Central Committee issued a memorandum on Guiding Lines on Postwar Construction. The memo's premise was that the party had `to give leadership on all questions of the future after victory which are deeply occupying the minds of the masses and affect the will to victory.' However, for the time being the party would restrict itself to general propaganda and particular campaigns around current issues. It would not propose its own postwar programme. Only when it came to the to the political conditions for progressive postwar reconstruction was the party willing to commit itself:
Only a powerful coalition of progressive forces, with corresponding forms of government, will be able to insure that new forms of state control and organisation ... shall be carried forward and developed.
42. A door had been opened to peace preparations, but it was still only ajar. This was reflected in the predominant political emphasis of the party's 16th `War' Congress in June 1943. Most of congress business was taken up with resolutions on unity and victory, India, and the trade unions. In his opening speech to the congress Pollitt dealt mainly with questions connected to the war effort, national unity, and the labour movement, with only passing references to the `New Britain' of popular imagination.66 There was a resolution on `Britain Today and Tomorrow', moved by Dutt, but it was more about the present than the future. Proposing the resolution Dutt argued that there was no sharp dividing line between war and peace and that the future would grow out of the present. The foundations for postwar advance were victory over fascism, the unity of the labour movement, and measures to strengthen war organisation and popular morale. The nearest Dutt came to a specific postwar policy position was in his call for a `Government representing and responsive to the Labour and democratic forces'. The core of the resolution itself was a series of proposed wartime social reforms on welfare, health, and education. It also projected the postwar maintenance of state controls, extensive nationalisation and `opening the way to the most rapid advance to Socialism'. The resolution noted that `there has been a widespread awakening among all sections of the people to the need to change the old social and economic order ... and to go forward to new forms of social and economic organisation for the general benefit'.67
43. The limited perspectives of the 16th congress on the postwar period were replaced over the coming year by a comprehensive programme for winning the peace. The party's peace preparations had three main dimensions: the adoption of a more precise political formula for the type of government that should rule Britain after the war, the elaboration of a programme for postwar reconstruction, and the development of a strategy for peacetime socialist advance.
44. The first public indication that the party was seriously thinking about the postwar General Election came in a letter to the Labour Party in December 1943 requesting discussions on `what preparations can be made by all working-class organisations to rally the entire Labour and progressive forces throughout the country, to secure the return of a Labour majority'.68 By February 1944 the party was calling for the return of a Labour and Progressive majority at the next General Election and in April the Daily Worker sponsored a very successful conference of trade union, Labour, Communist and progressive organisations on unity.69 In the summer of 1944 a new party campaign was launched with the aim of getting the Labour Party to accept an electoral alliance between all progressive forces.
45. Clearly, since the 16th congress the party leadership had devoted serious consideration to political prospects when the war ended. The end of the war was in sight and a General Election loomed. Another important factor in party thinking were the results of the October 1943 allied Foreign Ministers conference in Moscow and the Stalin-Churchill-Roosevelt conference in Teheran in November 1943. Following these conferences---which projected peacetime Anglo-Soviet-American alliance---the party gave great emphasis to the creation of the political conditions in Britain which would encourage postwar allied unity. A progressive alliance at home was seen as the parallel of the progressive alliance between states augured by the Moscow and Teheran conferences.70
46. With regard to the specific formulation of a government based on a Labour and progressive majority a crucial role was played by the party's re-evaluation of the independent political trends in British politics that had surfaced during the war. During 1943 these grew in strength and importance, culminating in a series of spectacular bye-election victories against government candidates in early 1944.71 As part of its policy of national unity around the Churchill Government in 1941 the party adopted a policy of respecting the bye-election truce and supporting National Government candidates. This position created not a little dissension in the party ranks and its gradual disintegration in 1943-1944 came as a relief to many members. Party activists were far happier backing the independents against Tory candidates than the other way round.72
47. One measure of the change in communist attitudes towards non-traditional progressive politics was changing party policy on the Commonwealth Party. Commonwealth, formed in July 1942, was a centre-left political force based on three principles: common ownership, vital democracy, and morality in politics. Commonwealth's political base lay in discontent with the coalition government and in the popular movement that sprang up around the Beveridge Report. At its peak it had 15,000 members in 300 branches and in 1943-1944 inflicted a series of defeats on National Government bye-election candidates. By the end of 1944 opinion polls were predicting that the party would capture 8% of the votes in the General Election.73
48. The party's initial response to Commonwealth was to denounce it as divisive, proto-fascist, middle class, and irrelevant.74 The party's attitude began to change, however, with the change in its bye-election policy in January 1944 when party members found themselves working alongside Commonwealth and other progressives to secure the return of anti-Government independents.75 At the Daily Worker unity conference in April 1944 Dutt and others were happy to engage in friendly debate with Commonwealth leaders about strategy and tactics in the coming General Election.76 In May Pollitt published a pamphlet in which he spelt out communist criticisms of Commonwealth but stated that the party was not hostile to the new organisation.77 Thereafter Commonwealth leader, Sir Richard Acland, took his place alongside Beveridge as a progressive revered and wooed by the party.78 Concerned about splits in the progressive vote in the General Election the party had embarked on a course of action designed to secure electoral agreements among left-centre political forces to ensure Tory defeat.
Britain for the People
49. The second aspect of the party's reorientation in 1944 was in relation to postwar reconstruction. Having long derided and resisted blueprints for the peace the party now began to draw up its own. In the course of 1944 the party published its proposals for reconstruction, social reform, and political advance. A series of detailed memoranda were issued on health, housing, industry, transport, demobilisation, employment, wages, welfare, agriculture, co-ops, women, education, industrial conversion, youth, and electoral reform. Most important, in January 1944 the party decided to establish a Postwar Programme Commission.79 Chaired by Dutt, the Commission's report on postwar policy was adopted by the EC in April80 and published shortly after under the title of Britain for the People.
50. In a press statement on the launch of Britain for the People Dutt presented the document as the party's contribution to discussion about problems of postwar policy. It was a series of `immediate concrete proposals for action at the end of the war, on which the broadest sections of the nation can unite', which if implemented would `prepare the conditions for future advance to socialism.' `The unity of the nation, which was indispensable for the defeat of fascism, must be developed and carried forward for the tasks of peace.'81
51. Britain for the People placed the party firmly within the consensus that postwar Britain should be reconstructed on the basis of state intervention, peacetime planning, a degree of nationalisation, and the establishment of a more extensive system of welfare support. The programme, like all the other communist policy memoranda of this period, was for real---a series of practical reforms which did not presuppose socialism and which could be implemented by a broad-based postwar government.
52. Apart from some left-wing inflections---more planning, more nationalisation, more state intervention---Britain for the People was not radically different from other sets of `New Britain' proposals of this period. If there was a specifically communist identity to the programme, one different from that of the Labour Party, for example, it lay in the advocacy of active democracy, popular participation, and collective action to forge a new world and a new citizenry:
The present passive kind of democracy ... must be replaced by an active democracy in which all play a part ... Our aim must be to encourage the initiative and participation of all citizens in the life of the nation ... As a result of the war, new forms of participation in the management of their common activities have been won by the people in industry, in local life, in civil defence, and even, in certain directions, in the armed forces ... Joint Production Committees in thousands of enterprises, reception committees, savings committees, firewatching parties, the shelter committees ... collective life in the Home Guard and the services have brought to millions of men and women a new sense of social responsibility and a power of initiative ... Every progressive measure requires the active help and personal initiative of millions, if it is to be realised not only in the statute book, but in the life of the people ... In the long run the people's will prevails only through their action ... The present generation has achieved a deep and widespread training in collective action and responsibility; this training must be used to the full and further developed through the widest possible participation of the people in the actual carrying through of the progressive measures on which Britain's future depends.
53. The last stage in the evolution of the party's postwar outlook was the elaboration of elements of a political strategy for postwar socialist advance. An initial effort was made by Emile Burns in a pamphlet published in January 194482 which foreshadowed many of the arguments and propositions contained in Britain for the People. But the major strategic document was drawn up by Pollitt following D-Day and published as a booklet, How to Win the Peace, in September 1944.83
54. Pollitt's starting point was that the anti-fascist war had resulted in a more favourable national and international balance of class and political forces. He pointed to the military success of the Soviet Union, to the popular political shift to the left in Europe, to the social and political advance of the labour movement in Britain, and to the development of new forms of mass politics. Crucial to this changing relation of forces was the increased power of the working class, the weaknesses and divisions of the capitalist class, and the new political outlook of the middle classes. In this new situation it was realistic to expect the emergence of a new social order in Britain, which Pollitt characterised as `state capitalism'. However, the possibility of a state capitalist Britain depended on the outcome of the General Election which in turn depended on the unity of progressive forces.
55. The rallying cry of How to Win the Peace was `a better Britain today and a socialist Britain tomorrow'. But what was the connection between state capitalism and socialism? Pollitt argued that,
The policy we have outlined will be a tremendous step towards developing and strengthening the people and all their organisations for the achievement of socialism ... It is not how `left' the immediate programme itself may be that determines whether it carries us forward towards liberation, towards Socialism. It is the degree to which the workers and people generally can be united to fight for it, and their enemies be isolated and exposed. It is the degree to which the progressive forces can increase their power. Moreover, we have to realise that the actual achievement of this programme, or even part of it, will itself change the country in which we live, the conditions in which we carry on our work, and---most important of all---it will change the minds of the people in the process of carrying it out, prepare them for yet other far-reaching changes.
56. In Answers to Questions, published in May 1945 Pollitt elaborated and defended the notion of `state capitalism' as a stage on the road to socialism. Accepting that state capitalism was still capitalism he nevertheless argued that the direction and planning of the economy would be determined by the relative strengths of reactionary and progressive forces. Hence, `state capitalism can mean that the sectional interests of the capitalists can to some extent be subordinated to the needs of the whole'. In defence of this contention Pollitt introduced the idea that the state could and would have to be changed, democratised, in order to secure a development of this type of state capitalism. The theoretical basis of this possibility was that `there are different forms of a particular class state which give different degrees of scope and influence to the progressive forces. There is not one uniform thing called a capitalist state that is always the same whatever the situation and the balance of forces---like capitalism it changes'.
57. Pollitt's most radical proposal was for a conjunctural compromise between the working class and sections of the capitalist class. The working class and the progressive sections of capital, he argued, had a common interest in reconstruction, particularly in the maintenance of political stability after the war. Further:
The overwhelming majority of people, when it comes to the concrete task of carrying out the essentials of a progressive programme of economic and social reconstruction ... will become convinced by experience that such measures of nationalisation and state control are necessary ... Moreover we believe this majority will include large sections of the capitalist class themselves, who will also become convinced, even if reluctantly, that such measures are unavoidable.
58. It was on this basis that Pollitt believed in the possibility of a revolution through consent in Britain and in the possibility of a long-term, peaceful transition to socialism.84
59. Pollitt's strategic conceptions in 1944-1945 are similar to those the party later came to adopt in the various editions of The British Road to Socialism (although even in its radical Eurocommunist phase the party hesitated to talk the language of popular patriotism and class compromise in the interests of social stability).85 It is important to appreciate, nonetheless, how far and how quickly the party had distanced itself from its revolutionary roots. In the 1920s the party's politics were characterised by a combination of revolutionary oppositionism and industrial militancy.86 This began to change in the 1930s, during the period of the politics of anti-fascism and the Popular Front.87 However, as late as 1939 the party was still theoretically committed to a revolutionary strategy for the conquest of power by the working class led by a revolutionary Marxist party, a strategy that would entail a violent struggle in which there would be a radical break with capitalism and its institutions. Reforms were seen as of value not for their own sake but only in so far as they strengthened the working class in its struggle for power. Militant action was the function of the Communist Party, not participation in social reconstruction. In short, what was required was a Soviet-type revolution in Britain.88
60. During war the party's policy, strategy and ethos came to be very different as it gradually adopted a constructive, reformist politics. The party's politics during the war years may be characterised as `radical social democracy'---a perspective of social reforms and social progress within a capitalist framework. Within this perspective of a reformed capitalism in which the working class would enhance its share of social, political and economic power, the party retained the long-term aim of socialism, but the achievement of a new society was seen as growing naturally out of collectivist practices and reforms, not as a function of the revolutionary conquest of power.
61. Another measure of the wartime transformation in communist politics was the party's changing conception of itself as an organisation. British communists had always aspired to a mass party but until 1942 the mass nature of the party was generally considered to lie in its leadership of mass struggles rather than a mass membership. The mass party was seen as a revolutionary cadre party whose members had mass influence. After June 1941 this view increasingly gave way to the view that a mass party was composed of cadres plus a number of other layers of membership. Mass influence and support was to be achieved through the direct political presence of the party throughout society. Elements of this conception had been present during the popular front period, but it was only with the acquisition of a mass membership in 1942 that it began to figure centrally in party thinking. Greater numbers were, moreover, only part of the organisational picture. The new mass membership was, it seems, predominantly young (average age early 30s), contained a high proportion of women (40%), were new to political activity, were more middle-class than previous generations of recruits, often lived in localities with no history of a communist presence, and were heavily concentrated in industry and organised in workplace units.89 All these facets of the party's composition added to the complexity of the organisational problems and tasks facing the leadership.
62. In March 1942 a political letter to members outlined some new proposals on organisation. It argued that the most important task was the education and political organisation of the new members. To this end it proposed to introduce a system of dues-collectors whose aim was not so much financial as political---the provision of a regular point of contact which would be the first step to the wider political involvement of new members. A new programme of branch and district education was also launched, as well as a national programme concerned specifically with cadre development.90 The overall aim was to make `Every member an agitator, organiser, and leader'.91
63. After the 16th congress in July 1943 came a second stage in the reconstruction of the party along mass lines which involved the development of a more rounded conception of what being a mass party meant. This took place in the wake of the failure of an ambitious plan hatched at the congress to expand party membership from 50,000 to 100,000.92 The leadership considered that the root of the failure lay within the party---in political resistance to a mass party, in organisational problems that resulted from mass recruiting, and in the fragmentation of the party into groups and sections---industrial and residential, old and new members, men and women, districts and branches. In a series of articles, letters and reports the leadership grappled with these problems and elaborated its concept of a mass party.93
64. Three main ideas informed the leadership's concept of a mass party. Firstly, that the minimum requirement of party membership was payment of dues and support for party policy. Secondly, that members had different levels of commitment and diverse relationships to the party. Recruitment was the first step in a process of training, education and involvement which aimed to develop new members into full party cadres, whilst at the same time recognising the value of different and lower levels of political activity. Thirdly, the party had to adapt itself to the new situation of a mass membership by adopting simpler and more direct methods of organisation and by nurturing a more attractive social and political life within the organisation.
65. Against this background of a search by the leadership for a new understanding of the party, a commission on organisation was set up. The decision was taken at the September 1944 EC meeting and was prompted by `many problems now arising in the Districts and in particular arising out of Congress meeting attendances, etc.'.94 The Commission, established on the authority of the 17th congress, reported to the EC in December and subsequently issued a discussion statement to party members. A review of party organisation had become necessary, the statement argued, because of the `most acute problems in larger branches with a number of factory groups'. Its proposals were aimed at `strengthening our capacity to mobilise the people in their homes and streets and organisations as well as in factories and place of work.'
66. In March 1945 the Commission's final conclusions were published as a Memorandum of the Executive Committee on Party Organisation. Developing the concept of a mass party the memo argued that it was necessary to `remove all those obstacles which prevent us from recruiting and holding thousands of men and women whose sympathies are entirely with us. There must be a new and wider conception of what we mean by "party activity", so that many more comrades can make a valuable contribution to our Party in their normal sphere of work.' A number of recommendations were made on branch and district organisation, methods of work and leadership, and the quality of cultural life within the party. In particular the memo underscored the notion of a mass party as a party with political presence. In the case of `inactive' members it argued `the circles with whom they are in touch ... should be regarded as extending the work and influence of the party, and not as something other than "party work"'. Cadres had the responsibility of making the best possible use of the party's political presence. This means supporting members' initiatives, learning from their experience, and encouraging all members to be a part of the normal life of the community.
67. The most radical organisational proposal was that members should belong to the branch covering the area where they lived. Hitherto branches had been made up of members living and working within a given area---which had the effect of emphasising factory-based organisation. The report proposed to shift the axis of party organisation toward the localities. Factory groups were to be replaced by factory committees which would lead the work of all members in an enterprise, irrespective of their branch.
68. The impetus behind this reorganisation was threefold. Firstly, it was a recognition that workers spent at least half their time away from the factory and were tenants, consumers, parents, men and women, as well as producers.95 Secondly, experience seemed to show that there was a limit to membership growth on the basis of factory organisation.96 Thirdly, the establishment of factory committees was a response to the de facto situation of the co-existence of industrial cadres alongside a mass of relatively inactive members in the workplace.
69. The reorganisation was carried out in 1945. The new structure and approach was a long way from the party's original conception of itself as a revolutionary elite of industrial militants.
Facing the Future: The Party and the 1945 General Election
70. In October 1944 the party held its 17th National Congress. At the congress the new political position that had evolved over the previous year was endorsed. Britain for the People was adopted as the party programme and the perspectives propounded by Pollitt in How to Win the Peace were approved in the main political resolution.97
71. Quite naturally, the coming General Election was a major focus for the delegates and at the congress the party's policy of a Labour and progressive majority in Parliament hardened into a specific proposal for,
Electoral agreement of the Labour Party, Communist Party, Liberal Party, Common Wealth and such other groups or sections of other political parties as are prepared to participate in a bloc of Labour and Progressive unity on the basis of an agreed programme and allocation of constituencies, with a view to ending the present Tory majority in Parliament and ensuring the return of a Government which will carry out a policy of international cooperation, democracy and social progress.98
72. Commenting on this proposal Pollitt pledged that if the Labour Party refused electoral unity, under no circumstances would the communists withdraw their candidates.99 The precise constitution of the future progressive government remained an open question: `We fight for a Government that is supported by an overwhelming majority of the Labour and progressive MPs and in which the Labour Party holds the key positions. The main composition and character of the Government will be determined by the situation and the result of the election itself'.100
73. The December EC meeting confirmed the party's perspective on the General Election. It would work for a Labour and progressive majority. It would campaign for the Labour Party to agree to an electoral alliance, failing which the party would stand 52 candidates of its own.101 Within three months, however, the leadership had withdrawn the majority of the party's parliamentary candidates and decided to state precisely what kind of government it wanted to see after the General Election: a National Government, one based on a Labour and Progressive majority in Parliament, but including elements of the Tory Party.
74. The change in party policy came in the wake of the Yalta Conference of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States in February 1945. The leadership believed that the decisions and results of Yalta hailed the possibility of a permanent democratic peace in the postwar world. Whether or not that possibility would be realised depended on political struggles against reactionary forces at home and abroad. The call for a National Government and the change in communist election policy was the party's contribution to this struggle. These decisions, the party believed, would maximise the chance of a progressive victory in the General Election and thereby guarantee the maintenance of national unity and the implementation of the Yalta agreements.102
75. The party's Yalta perspective was similar to the analysis of the international situation expounded during the war by Earl Browder103, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States of America. `The central problem of (the) postwar world', Browder argued in 1942, `will be that of whether or not the collaboration set up for the war, in the United Nations, can be continued and extended after the war to deal collectively with the problems of political and economic reconstruction of the world'.104 Following the Teheran Conference in November 1943 Browder developed his analysis. `Capitalism and socialism have begun to find the way to peaceful co-existence and collaboration', he argued. For Teheran's promise to be fulfilled national unity in the United States would have to be continued for many years after the war---national unity would have to become a normal as opposed to an emergency phenomenon. The task of communists was to consider what forms of political intervention would secure national unity after the war, including, if necessary, the abandonment of any immediate perspective of socialism.105
76. British Communist leaders had no problem with these views of Browder. They stoutly defended his analysis of the international situation.106 But they did have two differences with Browder. Firstly, they rejected the idea that the CPUSA's decision in January 1944 to reorganise itself into a `Communist Political Association', which would work to influence the policy of the Democratic and Republican parties, should be applied in Britain. An independent Communist Party, affiliated to the Labour Party or not, remained at the heart of the British Communist perspective. Secondly, they hesitated to endorse a continuation of the wartime forms of national unity (i.e. a National Government) into the postwar period.107 Such hesitation vanished in the wake of Yalta.
77. The new policy was decided on at the February EC108 and then presented to aggregates of the membership. Voting on the proposals was 7,850 in favour, 278 against, and 556 abstentions. These votes were recorded at 53 area aggregates, 150 branch meetings, 8 district committees and 5 district congresses. It appears that a substantial number of those who voted against or abstained did so because they disagreed with the reduction in the number of parliamentary candidates.109 The discussions were wide-ranging, with criticisms and queries regarding the policy from both more left and more right wing viewpoints.110
78. Following these discussions and an EC meeting on 18 March the party issued a press statement:
The Communist Party ... is of the opinion that national unity, essential for winning the war, will be equally essential in the critical years following the General Election to complete the victory and win the peace.
But its form must correspond to the democratic aspirations of the people. The existing Tory majority. ... must be replaced by a Labour and progressive majority, on the basis of which a new National Government should be formed.
This new National Government should include representatives of all parties supporting the decisions of the Crimea Conference, international economic cooperation, and an agreed minimum programme of economic and social progress for the people of Britain.111
At its April meeting the EC reduced the number of CP contested seats from 52 to 22.112
79. These decisions to call for a National Government and to withdraw communist candidates were informed by a deep pessimism about the prospects for the left in the coming election. The party, fearing a Churchill victory, hoped, firstly, to steal the clothes of national unity from the great war leader113 and, secondly, to enhance the prospects for electoral unity with the Labour Party or, if that was not possible, to avoid damaging splits in the Labour-Communist vote.
80. The problem with the first calculation was that the credibility of the call for a National Government depended on Labour's attitude. Its rejection by Labour saddled the party with an embarrassing and impractical political stance on the eve of the General Election. As a result the call for a National Government had disappeared from party slogans by mid-April 1945.
81. The second calculation rested on a gamble that electoral unity with Labour could be secured and, failing that, a confidence in the party's ability to win a strong group of communist MPs on the basis of a reduced list of contests. The party had been campaigning in the labour movement for electoral unity since early 1944 and a challenge from its supporters was going to be made at the May 1945 conference of the Labour Party. In the event an attempt to get electoral unity onto the conference agenda was defeated by 1,314,000 to 1,219,000 votes.114 With this failure the party fell back on supporting only Labour candidates in non-communist contested constituencies. Pollitt's call `to vote as red as you can' was a call to vote for Labour rather than other progressive candidates.115 The result of the General Election was a triumph for Labour and a devastating blow to the Communist Party. The party won only 102,780 votes. Willie Gallacher retained his seat in West Fife and Phil Piratin was elected in Mile End, but Pollitt failed to win Rhondda East by a few hundred votes. Twelve party candidates lost their deposits.116
82. Following the announcement of the results the party leadership undertook a self-criticism of its pre-election policies. They had, the leadership confessed, underestimated the left-swing in the country and over-estimated the possible role of the Liberals. An exaggerated view had been held of the political divisions in the Tory Party and the leadership had been over-optimistic about Communist electoral chances. All this had resulted in the wrong advocacy of a National Government.117
83. In Labour Monthly Dutt struck a less self-deprecatory note. Before the election he had argued that even with a Labour and progressive majority it would still be wise to form a National Government including the Tories.118 Now he argued that a Labour and progressive alliance could have secured an even greater victory and cautioned that a Labour parliamentary landslide was not the same as `the permanent ascendancy of the Labour Movement, leading the majority of the nation in basic social engineering'.119
84. Another thing the party leadership admitted was that its own electoral course---a limited communist campaign and mobilisation for a Labour victory---had contributed to the national polarisation between Labour and Conservatives. Herein lies, perhaps, the leadership's real mistake. The party's political future depended, at least in part, on parliamentary success in terms of votes and seats. The emergence of Commonwealth, the better fortunes of the Liberals, and the party's own growth all indicated the existence of a strong base for progressives outside the Labour Party.120 If instead of bowing to Labour's electoral dominance and retreating in the face of the difficulty of winning seats in the first-past-the-post-voting system, the party had mounted a serious challenge in the 1945 election the outcome might have been very different. It would not have resulted in a mass electoral breakthrough but a small group of Communist MPs (including Pollitt) backed by several hundred thousand votes was within the realm of possibility---provided the party had been able to break Labour's monopoly on the left and progressive vote and persuaded voters to overcome their natural reluctance to back minor party candidates.
85. An alternative strategy of challenging Labour for votes in the General Election and building party membership and strength was possible in 1945. The party was strong enough organisationally and the policy politically saleable to a membership flushed with the success of wartime growth.121 But such an alternative did not exist within the political universe of the party leadership. In a speech to the Executive Committee on the eve of the General Election Pollitt made it clear that the party's priority was the struggle against the Tories and that it remained focused on the pursuit of affiliation to the Labour Party:
We must remember the importance of this issue---if affiliated the C.P. will influence the policy of the Labour Party to a great degree, and our Trade Union members will be able to sit on the E.C., and can be on the parliamentary panels of the Unions. We must not do anything that can lose us the powerful support of the Unions.122
86. Following the General Election the party turned again to affiliation as a means of political advance. But its application was rejected by the Labour Party conference in 1946, which also agreed to close the door on future communist applications for affiliation. Apart from anything else the Labour Party had no need for an organisation that had failed to live up to its wartime promise in the crucible of the General Election.
Conclusion: The Limits of Popular Radicalism
87. For a period after the war the Communist Party stuck with the politics of radical social democracy---supporting the Labour government on a critical but constructive basis, campaigning for increased production, participating in reconstruction, and arguing for social reform. But with the outbreak of the cold war and establishment of the Soviet-dominated Communist Information Bureau in September 1947, the party abruptly abandoned its perspective of achieving socialism through reform of capitalism and executed a left turn in policy which involved a virtual return to the strategy of a revolutionary conquest of power.123 This turn of events points to one reason for the party's failure to make the hoped for breakthrough into the centre of British politics: its membership of the Moscow-led international communist movement identified it closely with the USSR and Soviet socialism and made it hostage to the changing fortunes of international politics. The onset of the cold war further undermined its political position, as it did other west European communist parties, and the prospect of a Soviet-style Britain appealed, at best, to only a tiny minority of people.124
88. Another reason for the party's failure to capitalise on its wartime gains concerns the loss of political momentum in the period of the 1945 General Election---a outcome that might have been averted by a different political and electoral strategy.
89. But perhaps the most important part of the explanation lies in the failure of the party's wartime project of a mass participatory democracy. Of critical importance to the possibility of realising this project was the success of the great wartime JPC movement. However, despite early successes in mobilising popular involvement in the workplace, the JPCs failed to live up to their promise. By the end of the war they were in severe decline, not least because of a lack of popular interest in them. In analysing the history of the JPC movement, James Hinton points to a number of factors contributing to their ultimate fate: employer resistance to joint-consultation and the erosion of managerial prerogatives; the failure of the government to intervene and empower shop floor activists and thereby contribute to the creation of a JPC-based `production alliance' of workers, managers and the state; traditional trade union practices and attitudes; and a variety of problems in the day to day functioning of JPCs.125 To these factors may be added the Communist Party's failure to give sufficient attention to the JPC movement.
90. The party was by far the most important inspiration and driving force of the wartime production movement. Even after the war the party continued to stand for the development of the JPCs as institutions of productivity, participation and shopfloor democracy. In the party's vision of a democratic state capitalism the JPCs were cast as grassroots organs of working class democratic initiative, with statutory authority and extended powers, and involving an ever-wider constituency.126 However, after 1941-1942 they were not a central party priority. They continued to figure large in party rhetoric---as Pollitt's writings of this period testify---but only had a marginal place on the leadership's political-strategic agenda.127 But even if the party had been prepared to devote more energy to the JPCs it is doubtful that this would have done much to avert their decline as institutions of popular participation. As Hinton's own work testifies, most of the shop floor citizens were not much interested in industrial democracy and the extension of workers' control in the workplace. Even at the height of their popularity the JPCs were largely an enthusiasm of a small minority of activists. And a broad-based activist enthusiasm was a precondition of communist political success. Citizen action, involvement, responsibility and power was at the very centre of its vision of a popular democratic state capitalism. But even in the workplace heartland of its power base in British society this was evidently a prospect of only limited appeal for the overwhelming majority of people.
91. British communists were not unaware of this fundamental obstacle to the realisation of their political ambitions. Even in their finest hour of power and popularity they remained acutely aware that mass radicalisation and the democratic refashioning of British politics and society was only a prospect and far from being a reality. This much is evident, from among other things, the relative pessimism of the party's outlook on the 1945 General Election. It was only after the election that the party---like many others---embraced the view that there had been a massive swing to the left during the war. Explaining the error of the pre-election view Pollitt told the delegates to the 18th party congress in November 1945:
We are Marxists, comrades, not magicians. There is a basic reason why we were wrong in our estimation of the left swing in the Labour movement ... I believe we failed to grasp this fact---that in the course of the war, which was brought to the doorsteps and homes of millions of people, in the air-raid shelters and in the cellars, in tubes and fire-watching parties, the working class, the professional and middle classes were quietly thinking to themselves, saying a word neither to their husbands, or wives, sons or brothers--but thinking to themselves. They were thinking: `In our lifetime capitalism has only brought us poverty and unemployment. And now it has brought us this.' And on the other hand they were thinking also of the miracles being performed by a socialist country through its Red Army, in the fight to make this war the last war, and that caused a basic political mental change in the outlook of millions and led them to take that historic initiative of which we had not taken due cognisance.128
92. It was a pretty lame analysis and excuse at the time, and, in retrospect, perhaps an unnecessary one. As many historians now recognise, the party's wartime perception and experience of a real but limited social and political transformation of Britain encapsulated a more realistic appreciation of the nature and scope of popular radicalism during the war than the hyperbole of a `1945 revolution'.
1. This article is based mainly on the public and semi-public documents of the Communist Party, most of which are available in a variety of libraries and archives. Only where it seems likely that the document in question has a unique location have I indicated its sources. An earlier version of this article was presented to Opening the Books: Communist Party History Conference, Manchester, January 1994. It was produced with financial assistance from University College Cork.
2. R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London 1975) 274; E. P. Thompson in Socialist Register 1973 (London 1973) 52.
3. For a survey of relevant literature see J. Harris, `War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War', Contemporary European History 1, no. 1 (1992).
4. S. Fielding Thompson and N. Tiratsoo, `England arise!' The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester 1995); T. Mason and Thompson, `"Reflections on a revolution"? The political mood in wartime Britain' and S. Fielding, `"Don't know and don't care": popular political attitudes in Labour's Britain, 1945-1951', in N. Tiratsoo (ed), The Atlee Years (London 1993); and S. Fielding, `What Did "The People" Want?: The Meaning of the 1945 General Election', The Historical Journal 35, no. 3, 1992.
5. M. Franklin and M. Ladner, `The Undoing of Winston Churchill: Mobilisation and Conversion in the 1945 Realignment of British Voters', British Journal of Political Science 25 (1995) 429-452. For an early study that cast doubt on the idea that the result of the 1945 election was an expression of political radicalisation see M. Abrams, `The Labour Vote in the General Election' in C. Madge (ed), Pilot Papers: Social Essays and Documents 1, no. 1 (1946). See also the works cited in n.3 and S. Brooke, `The Labour Party and the 1945 General Election', Contemporary Record 9, no. 1 (1995).
6. B. Schwarz, review of England Arise! in Renewal 4, no. 1 (1996); J. Hinton, `1945 and the Apathy School', History Workshop Journal 43 (1997).
7. Science & Society 61, no. 1 (1997) 123.
8. See S. Fielding's review `British Communism: Interesting but irrelevant?', Labour History Review 60, part 2, (1995).
9. Fielding, Thompson and Tiratsoo, op. cit. 52-54.
10. Victory, Peace, Security: Report of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party 26.
11. Membership figures are based on a detailed breakdown and analysis of district and national figures. The main sources were the party members' bulletin Mobilising for the Second Front (October 1942) 9; the party journal World News and Views (hereafter WNV) 26/9/42 387, 19/2/44 63, 9/12/44 399; and the Executive Committee reports to the 17th and 18th party congresses.
12. H. Cantril, Public Opinion 1935-1946 (Princeton 1951) 196; Daily Worker (hereafter DW) 18/11/44.
13. WNV, 24/11/45 384, 23/3/46 95, 27/8/46; Executive Committee Report to the 19th Party Congress, 18.
14. WNV 28/7/45 230.
15. For example, in 1945 there were seven and a half thousand column inches per month of local press reports on the party. Executive Committee Report to the 18th Congress 15.
16. The Way to Win: Decisions of the National Conference of the CPGB (May 1942) 5.
17. On the party's policy before June 1941 see J. Attfield and S. Williams (ed), 1939: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the War (London 1984); F. King and G. Matthews (ed), About Turn: The British Communist Party and the Second World War (London 1990); N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-1941 (London 1985); K. Morgan, Against Fascism and War: Rupture and Continuities in British Communist Politics, 1935-1941 (Manchester 1991); and M. Johnstone, `The CPGB, the Comintern and the War, 1939-1941: Filling in the Blank Spots', Science & Society 61, no. 1, 1997.
18. CP press statement, 22/6/41, Communist Party Archives (hereafter CPA). Published in WNV 28/6/41. At the time this research was conducted there was no filing reference system in the CPA (then based in London, now in Manchester). However, there should be no difficulty in locating the documents cited in the archives and copies of all the material are in the possession of the author.
19. `For a People's Victory Over Fascism', CPA. Published in WNV 12/7/41.
20. Central Committee guidelines on the Campaign for the Common Defence of the British and Soviet People, June 1941 in CPA. The guidelines were published in WNV 6/7/41---minus the second paragraph of the passage quoted above.
21. `For the Defeat of Fascism: An Appeal to Our Party', CPA.
22. An important factor in the rapid reversal of the previous policy, in particular the anti-Churchill line, was the counsel of the Comintern. The relevant telegrams from the Comintern archives (in Russian) are on microfilm in the Communist Party archives.
23. The party's position is summarised in the declarations and resolutions of The Way to Win.
24. See the numerous reports in WNV June-December 1941.
25. `For joint action with the USSR', WNV 2/8/41. Springhall was expelled from the party in 1943 following his arrest on charges of espionage. The Political Bureau's decision to expel Springhall was unanimously endorsed by the Executive Committee on 15/8/43. EC Minutes, CPA.
26. WNV 2/8/41, 491. Also WNV 9/8/41, 497-498.
27. See J. Mahon, Harry Pollitt (London 1976) 276-281.
28. See e.g. WNV 2/8/41, 493.
29. ibid. 28/6/41, 410.
30. ibid. 19/7/41, 466; 23/8/41, 540.
31. Cantril, op. cit. 518.
32. On the campaign see W. Rust, The Story of the Daily Worker, People's Press Printing Society 1949, chap. 8 and Rust's article in Labour Monthly, October 1942.
33. WNV, 16/8/41, 524; 22/11/41, 473; 27/9/41, 619; 27/12/41, 824; 17/1/42, 45; 24/1/42, 55; 7/3/42, 155; 18/4/42, 206.
34. ibid. 13/12/41, 791.
35. Details of the membership campaign in WNV January-April 1942. Sales figures of the pamphlet provided by Bill Wainwright.
36. LM, May 1942, 149.
37. WNV 16/8/41, 525; 30/8/41, 556-557; 27/9/41, 607; 18/10/41, 662.
38. ibid. 25/10/41, 675-676.
39. See Morgan, op. cit., esp. 225-234.
40. This characterisation is borrowed from J. Hinton, `Coventry Communism: A Study of Factory Politics in the Second World War', History Workshop Journal 10 (1980). But note that Hinton is referring to the post-June 1941 period.
41. The anti-boss vein of the party's production campaign in summer 1941 can be seen in Pollitt's articles and speeches in WNV: 26/7/41, 466, 473; 16/8/41, 513-514; 30/8/41, 545-546; 20/9/41, 597. See also the PB letter to branches on production, 24/7/41 in CPA.
42. `Our Production Campaign', 20/8/41, CPA.
43. J. Owen, Factory Front, People Convention pamphlet, 11.
44. J. Owen, War in the Workshops (London 1942) chap. 6 and p. 70.
45. WNV 25/10/41, 676.
46. An Urgent Memorandum on Production, 6.
47. The memorandum was drafted by Dutt. See Dutt Papers (British Museum) K4, 1941-1942.
48. J. Hinton, Shop Floor Citizens: Engineering Democracy in 1940s Britain (London 1994) 88. Hinton's book is by far the most detailed and illuminating study of the JPCs. See also C. Riegelman, British Joint Production Machinery (Montreal 1944); N. Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions 1933-1945, PhD (London University 1992) chap. 6; R. Croucher, Engineers at War (London 1982); G. Brown, Sabotage (London 1980); K. Coates and T. Topham (ed), Workers Control (London 1971); N. Tiratsoo and J. Tomlinson, Industrial Efficiency and State Intervention: Labour 1939-51 (London 1993) chap. 2; Inman, Labour in the Munitions Industry, HMSO 1957; and People in Production, Mass Observation 1942. For a comparative perspective see Labour-Management Co-operation in United States War Production, ILO (Montreal 1948).
49. H. Pollitt, How to Win the Peace, CP booklet, September 1944, pages 39 and 87.
50. On this point see Fishman, op. cit.
51. Trade Union Policy in the War Against Fascism, December 1942; Towards a Greater Trade Union Movement, August 1944; and various pamphlets on individual industries.
52. Dutt Papers, British Museum, CUP 1262, K4, 1941-1942.
53. The CP's policy on strikes is criticised and attacked from a Trotskyist perspective in S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1939-1945 (London 1982). See also Croucher, op. cit. for discussion of strikes in the engineering industry.
54. Quoted by Steve Jefferys, op. cit. 17. On the wartime strike record see also N. Barou, British Trade Unions, Left Book Club, 1947.
55. See H. Francis and D. Smith, The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the 20th Century (London 1980) chap. 11.
56. On Dutt see J. Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt (London 1993).
57. R. P. Dutt, Britain in the World Front (London 1942).
58. The evidence for this speculation is Dutt's advocacy of the People's Convention Movement as a `broad democratic movement for democratic aims'. In the event the Convention was abolished by the party in January 1942. See J. Hinton, `Killing the People's Convention: A Letter from Palme Dutt to Harry Pollitt', Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History 39 (1979).
59. Labour Monthly pamphlet, 1943. Other important texts included: E. Burns, The Case for Affiliation, CP pamphlet, 1943; Harry Pollitt's article in Labour Monthly, February 1943; and Communist Party and Labour Party: Correspondence, CP pamphlet, 1943.
60. See further: C. Nawrat and G. Roberts, `Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining: the Communist Party, the Labour Party and Representative Politics', Politics & Power 2 (London 1980).
61. The campaign is covered in detail in N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951 (London 1997) and J. Hinton, `Communism and the Labour Party, 1941-1946', unpublished paper, c.1979-1980.
62. On the Report's reception see Addison, The Road to 1945 (London 1975) chap. 8.
63. Documents for the 16th Congress, 23-24.
64. DW, 2/12/42, 17/12/42, 19/12/42.
65. Dutt Papers, British Museum, K4, 1941-1942,
66. Unity and Victory: Report of the 16th Congress of the Communist Party, 1943.
67. ibid. 29-33, 48-55.
68. Documents for the 17th Congress, 33.
69. WNV, 26/2/44, 70; 8/4//44, 113.
70. See the coverage of the two conferences in various issues of WNV, November-December 1943.
71. See Addison, op. cit. 49-51.
72. Hinton, `Communism and the Labour Party', traces the development of party policy on bye-elections and the electoral truce.
73. On Commonwealth see A. Calder, The People's War (London 1971) 631-655; opinion poll reported in DW 18/1/44.
74. See e.g. R. P. Arnot, What is Commonwealth?, CP pamphlet, 1943 and DW 9/2/43. The response was much like that of the party to the SDP in the 1980s.
75. DW, 2/2/44.
76. ibid. 3/4/44.
77. Pollitt Answers Questions on Communist Policy, CP pamphlet, May 1944, 13.
78. See DW, 20/1/44 and 8/12/44.
79. EC Minutes, 19/1/44, CPA.
80. EC Minutes, 16/4/44, CPA.
81. CP Press Statement, 16/6/44, Dutt Papers, CPA.
82. Jobs, Homes, Security: Post-War Britain and the Way to Socialism.
83. Pollitt was asked by the PB in June 1944 to write the booklet. See Weekly Letter 20/6/44, CPA.
84. See the very interesting review of Answers to Questions, How to Win the Peace, and Pollitt's 1947 Looking Ahead by Malcolm Mitchell in Communist Review, October 1947.
85. See A. Chester, `Uneven Development: Communist Strategy from the 1940s to the 1970s', Marxism Today, September 1979 and W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause (London 1992).
86. On the party in the 1920s see L. J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origins and Development until 1929 (London 1966) and J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain i & ii (London 1968, 1969).
87. On the party during the 1930s see Morgan, op. cit.; Branson, op. cit. and J. Fyrth (ed), Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front (London 1985).
88. See Draft Programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain, August 1939.
89. These comments on the composition of the party are based on impressions and extrapolations from the delegate credential reports of the 16th, 17th and 18th party congresses and on scattered reports in the party press. In relation to the workplace organisational basis of the party, it is reported that in 1942 their were some 2,000 communist factory groups (WNV, 11/7/42, 302). In London alone there were 800 factory groups in 1943 and the party had recruited 2,500 shop stewards and 250 trade union officials (Steve Jeffreys, `The Communist Party and the Rank and File', International Socialism 10 (1980-1981) 18-19).
90. Political Letters, 27/3/42, 30/4/42; Mobilising the Party for the Second Front, October 1942; How to Organise Party Education, CP pamphlet, November 1942.
91. WNV, 2/1/43, 7.
92. DW, 21/8/43.
93. See WNV, January-March 1944, esp. R. W. Robson's article on 22/1/44; Party Organisation and the Invasion, June 1944; and the EC statement on a mass party in Documents for the 17th Congress, 46-48.
94. EC Minutes, 19/9/44, CPA.
95. S. Blackwell, Some Guiding Points for Strengthening Organisation, Birmingham CP pamphlet, ND.
96. D. Grandjean, Ward Groups: The Way Forward, London District pamphlet, ND.
97. Victory, Peace, Security: Report of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party.
98. ibid. 38-39.
99. ibid. 26.
101. WNV, 23/12/44, 408,413; EC Minutes 17/12/44, CPA.
102. See Political Letter: The Communist Party and the Crimea Conference, 21/2/45, CPA. The Letter pointed out that this was not the first time the party had called for such a national government. In 1938 the party had argued for an alliance of Labour, Liberals and anti-appeasement Tories such as Churchill. Although the Letter did not say so, it seems likely that the party's policy was influenced as well by the emergence of various national unity governments in liberated Europe.
103. On Browder's views see M. Isserman, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Connecticut 1982) and J. R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957 (Harvard 1972).
104. E. Browder, Victory and After (New York 1942) 125-126.
105. Speech to the CPUSA National Committee, January 1944, reprinted in WNV 21/1/44, 25-28. See also E. Browder, Teheran: Our Path in Peace and War (New York 1944).
106. See H. Pollitt, Answers to Questions on Communist Policy, CP pamphlet, May 1944 and articles by Dutt (LM, February 1944) and Rust (DW, 28/1/44). Also, Dutt's personal letter on Browder to a party member on 11/4/44 in the Dutt Papers, CPA.
107. See Weekly Letters, 24/1/44, 3/3/44.
108. EC Minutes, 18/2/45, CPA.
109. Political Letter: Results of Party Discussion, 21/3/45, CPA. A document giving a detailed breakdown of the voting can be found in the 1945 EC Minutes file in the CPA.
110. In the EC Minutes 1945 file there is a document summarising the questions asked at aggregates and a detailed report of the discussion at the North London aggregate.
111. National Unity After the War: Communist Party Statement, CPA.
112. EC Minutes, 15/4/45; EC Statement on Parliamentary Candidates. Both in CPA. The number of candidates was later reduced to 21, following the failure to secure local agreement on a united left candidate in Acton (where Ted Bramley was to stand).
113. DW editorial, 21/3/45.
114. On the campaign for progressive electoral unity see Hinton `Communism and the Labour Party'.
115. A first edition editorial in the Daily Worker ,30 May, 1945 advised people to vote Labour not Liberal on the grounds that the latter were the `weak brethren of the progressive camp'. Common Wealth took a similar line to that of the CP when it decided to stand only in those seats where there was no chance of splitting the vote with Labour and letting in the conservative (DW, 2/4/45).
116. A detailed report on the party's General Election campaign may be found in the CPA. According to Hymie Fagan, the party's National Election agent in 1945, Pollitt lost Rhondda because of the soldier's vote.
117. Political Letter: The Communist Party in the New Political Situation, 28/8/45, CPA. A removal of this section of the Political Letter was proposed by Gallacher at the August meeting. Only two votes were cast in support. EC Minutes, 18/19/8/45, CPA.
118. LM, April 1945, 103.
119. LM, August 1945.
120. Commonwealth got 100,000 votes and 1 MP in the 1945 election. The Liberal vote increased from 6% to 9%, and they might have got as much as 15% of the vote had they stood in more constituencies. On the Liberal Party see M. Baines, `The Liberal Party and the 1945 General Election', on Commonwealth, J. Callaghan, `Common Wealth and the Communist Party in the 1945 General Election', both in Contemporary Record 9, no. 1, 1995. More generally see S. Fielding's important article `The Second World War and Popular Radicalism: The Significance of the "Movement away from Party"', History 80, no. 258, 1995. Fielding argues that `the radicalism generated during the Second World War was defined by more than a swing of opinion towards the left ... it also involved severe criticism of the unrepresentative nature of parliamentary democracy' (56). Fielding emphasises the anti-party mood of this `criticism'; my argument is that there was a possibility in 1945 of fashioning this anti-party mood, largely directed at the Conservative and Labour parties, into support for alternative parties within the political system. James Hinton points out (`1945 and the Apathy School' 271) that after the election there was strong swing towards Labour, perhaps because in winning the General Election so decisively the Labour Party came to be seen as the appropriate embodiment of the will of the nation.
121. See Political Letters of 31/3/44 and 6/4/44 in the CPA which make reference to the leadership's concern about adopting too many candidates to run against the Labour Party. In this connection see also Kay Beauchamp's letter in WNV 24/11/45, 380-381 which expresses the spirit of that element of the communist tradition in Britain that emphasised the project of an independent mass party rather than a capture of the Labour Party and the trade unions for party policy.
122. `Harry Pollitt's Speech 25.5.45', CPA. Pollitt continued: `... and in this connection it may be necessary for us to withdraw one of our candidates in order not to lose important support from one of the Unions'. The reference here may be to Ted Bramley's contest in Acton. There are other references in the CPA expressing the leadership's concern that its election contests might jeopardise relations with the unions.
123. See H. Pelling, The British Communist Party: A Historical Profile (London 1958), chaps. 8-9.
124. In relation to this point see D. Sassoon, `The Rise and Fall of West European Communism 1939-1948', Contemporary European History 1, no. 2, 1992.
125. Hinton, Shop Floor Citizens, op. cit.
126. See Trade Unions and the General Election, CP Pamphlet, January 1945; Engineering Prospects and Wages, CP Pamphlet, March 1945; Over to Peace, CP Pamphlet, September 1945; Britain's Plan for Prosperity, CP Pamphlet, 1947. Also, Pollitt's Looking Ahead, 1947.
127. Between 1943 and 1945 not a single item on the EC's agenda was devoted to a discussion of the JPCs. As far as I can see, the PB also devoted little or no time to production issues.
128. WNV, 8/12/45, 394.