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British Communism

A Documentary History


 John Callaghan & Ben Harker


 Manchester: University Press, 2011

Paperback. vi+304 p. ISBN 978-071908211. £18.99


 Reviewed by Jeremy Tranmer

Université de Lorraine



Witty commentators have noted that there are now more academics working on various aspects of the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPBG) than it had members during its existence! The twenty-one years since the demise of the CPGB have, indeed, seen a qualitative transformation in its historiography. The decline of Communism as a world movement and the disappearance of the CPGB have led to the opening of the party’s archives and have encouraged former members to talk more freely about their experiences, contributing to renewed interest in British Communism. Several general histories and numerous more detailed studies of the social and cultural history of the party have thus been published. The change has also been qualitative. The historiography of British Communism is no longer dominated by a sterile pro-/anti-communist dichotomy, although this has not entirely disappeared. Innovative approaches such as prosopography have resulted in new insights into what it meant to be a Communist in Britain and what differentiated Communists from other labour movement activists. The CPGB may not have achieved its ultimate aims, but it is continuing to keep a significant number of historians very busy!

Callaghan and Harker’s British Communism. A Documentary History is somewhat different to the work mentioned above, which it is intended to complement [12]. Its singularity lies in the fact that it contains extracts from over one hundred and fifty documents produced by the CPGB. The book is composed of twelve chapters. Six of them are predominantly chronological and deal with key periods such as the ‘Class Against Class’ period of 1928 to 1935 [106-124] and the Popular Front strategy of 1935 to 1939 [125-144]. The others are mainly thematic, examining, for example, the party’s work in and attitude to the British Empire [82-105], its reactions to the events of 1956 [186-205], and its approach to the ‘new social movements’ of the 1960s and 1970s [234-253]. The chapters contain a short general introduction as well several extracts from relevant primary sources, each of which is briefly presented by the authors. The extracts are taken from a wide variety of documents, including editorials and articles from the Communist press, the party’s long-term programme the British Road to Socialism, pamphlets, poems written by Communists, and summaries of internal debates which were recorded and kept in the archives. Each chapter has a bibliography, and there is a general select bibliography. In a ‘Biographical notes’ section at the end of the book, the authors give information about individuals mentioned in the various chapters.


Callaghan and Harker, who have both written extensively on British Communism (and in Callaghan’s case, on the British extreme left in general), have clearly made an original and useful contribution to the study of the CPGB. Never before has such a wide array of material produced by the party been brought together and made available to the general public. A newcomer to British Communism is thus able not only to gauge the ideological and political distance travelled by the party as expressed in its own words (since the book covers the seventy-one-year history of the CPGB) but also to familiarise him/herself with the culture of the party. The changes in language and jargon, which are barely mentioned in other work, come to the fore and are themselves highly revealing. Moreover, the party no longer appears as a homogeneous entity since the views of a relatively broad spectrum of opinion within the CPBG are presented, for example in the chapters concerning the events of 1956 and the adoption of a revised version of the British Road to Socialism in 1977.


Nevertheless, British Communism. A Documentary History is not above criticism. It is, for example, rather surprising that the end of the party is glossed over, and no information is given about the claims of Democratic Left, its successor, to take forward what it believed to be the positive aspects of the British Communist tradition. The CPGB’s role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) is completely ignored, even though many Communists were active in it and the party constantly stressed its importance in the 1980s. Furthermore, the choice of documents is occasionally questionable. The pertinence of an extract from Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ [190-191], which was originally published in the Observer, is debatable. In the final chapter, Raphael Samuel’s criticism of Marxism Today, the party’s controversial monthly theoretical and discussion journal, sits uncomfortably with the other documents [273-275]. Although Samuel had written about the internal culture of the party and had remained a Socialist, he had left it following the events of 1956. His remarks were therefore those of an independent Socialist. The extract could have been replaced, for example, by a passage from a congress resolution critical of the magazine or from one of the numerous articles or letters published in the Morning Star. An extract from the 1989 Manifesto For New Times would also have been welcome, since it replaced the British Road to Socialism and encapsulated the party’s changing thinking in its twilight years. Finally, the presentations that accompany the extracts are sometimes too brief. It is unfortunate, for instance, that the authors omitted to mention the role played by Tony Lane’s Marxism Today article ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’ in the party’s internal problems [265]. Following its publication, the party’s industrial officer expressed his hostility to it in the Daily Mirror, while the Morning Star went into open revolt, publicising and deepening the divergences that had existed within the leadership for several years.


These reproaches are, however, relatively minor and perhaps a little unfair. More detailed introductions to the documents would have made the book excessively lengthy, and it would have entered into competition with the works that it was intended to complement. Overall, the authors have provided new students of British Communism with a valuable tool, which, it is to he hoped, will encourage some of them to undertake further research and add to the increasingly rich literature about the CPGB.


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