After the Party
Reflections on Life since the CPGB
Edited by Andy Croft
London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012
Paperback. 159 p. ISBN 978-1907103476. Ł15.99
Reviewed by Emily Robinson
University of Nottingham
The Communist Party of Great Britain was never more than a marginal electoral force. Even the ‘several hundred Communist councillors and five Members of Parliament’ mentioned in the introduction to this collection hardly made a dent on the electoral map. Despite this, and as has frequently been remarked, its members had a disproportionate influence on both the culture and the politics of this country. Yet, as Andy Croft asks: ‘If it was such a unique and important organisation, why […] is there not more of a CP-shaped hole in British life?’ This collection of reflections from eight former members seeks to address that question.
Croft distinguishes his book from other recent studies of the CPGB by stating that ‘It is not a book about what being a Communist “meant”, but about what not being a Communist means now’ . Yet it proves impossible to look at the latter without the former. One of the things that comes across most strongly is the sense that being a communist ‘meant’ something very particular, that it gave its members’ lives a unique texture. It is the loss of this unique ‘way of participating in and belonging to the world’ that shapes their reflections on life after the party.
The all-consuming nature of involvement with the CP will be familiar to most readers – whether from first-hand experience, Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism, or the works of Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn. Communism was not a part-time activity. Lives were dedicated to the business of producing, distributing and debating literature and to organising, recruiting and campaigning. Here, however, the asceticism inherited from an older generation sits alongside hedonistic tales of student politics in the 1970s and ‘80s. The connecting line is the excitement of committing oneself to the cause. Or rather ‘causes’, because as several of the contributions make clear, communists were also highly active in trade unions, international campaign groups and student politics. As Alistair Findlay notes, this wealth of other political activity may have ‘cushioned’ the loss of the party . Indeed, his is the most optimistic of the essays, largely because of the ways in which Scottish labour and nationalist politics and a broad-left literary scene have continued to provide a cultural and political home. He asserts: ’I was a marxist before I joined the CPGB, I was a marxist when it dissolved itself in 1991, and I have been a marxist – certainly culturally – ever since’ [57-58].
It is striking that several of the contributors – notably those who went on to join the Labour Party – miss the openness of the CPGB’s culture, which is contrasted with the dismissive managerialism of New Labour’s treatment of its members. This may seem paradoxical for an organisation bound by democratic centralism and notorious for its Stalinist organisational practices. However, this was offset by an emphasis on participation and debate which these writers believe to be absent from contemporary political life. Moreover, this generation of post-68ers were often drawn to the party precisely because of the struggles against the old party structures that were taking place within it. Feminism, environmentalism and anti-racism were powerful threads and have continued to shape their political activities.
That is not to say that the contributors speak with one voice. Kate Hudson is particularly critical of the party’s turn towards what she calls ‘the worst kind of shopping-list politics’  in its final years and instead emphasises the role of the working-class in achieving universal emancipation. For her, communism remains a matter of class struggle first and foremost. As an opponent of the dissolution of the party, it is no surprise to find that Hudson joined the Communist Party of Britain and the Stop the War coalition. Her piece provides a necessary reminder that the slide towards dissolution did not go unchallenged.
The majority of contributors, however, occupied either a centrist or eurocommunist position and were not implacably opposed to the ‘transformation process’ which saw the CPGB disband as a political party and become a broad-left network known as Democratic Left. Yet this does not diminish their regrets. From the Labour deputy council leader unsure whether compromised action is better than principled opposition, to the equal pay campaigner taking on the trade union he helped to establish, the politics of post-communism seem dispiriting and problematic. Andy Croft himself describes having suffered from ‘a kind of nagging intellectual agoraphobia’ since the end of the party .
The tone of the collection veers between personal anecdote, political analysis and recrimination. In places the political is difficult to extricate from the personal. One contribution, in particular, is structured around three love affairs, with the focus falling rather more heavily on the sex (and its attendant regrets) than the politics around which it took place. But perhaps that is the point. Its author, Andrew Pearmain, now an academic at UEA, leaves us in no doubt that communism shaped his personal life, leaving him with a ‘vague sense of being scarred for life’ . Other authors are rather more circumspect but several report episodes of depression and personal crisis coinciding with the collapse of the party.
The question of what ‘not being a Communist means now’ remains rather nebulous. Responses range from proud nostalgia to quiet relief and bitter regret. What seems more clear is the effect that having been (or in some cases, being still] a communist had on the future lives of these authors – and the campaigns, organisations and businesses they went on to run. This is not simply a matter of ongoing political and social commitments (to peace, to internationalism, to social justice); several writers also credit their later achievements to the particular set of skills they learned as communists. These range from the ability to build coalitions and create spaces for political debate to the ‘public speaking, strategic analysis and ability to make constructive proposals’ required of a local councillor ; and from running a radical bookshop to constructing the media-savvy blend of politics and pop culture behind a successful t-shirt company.
The analyses of British politics ‘after the party’ presented here are nuanced and varied. We do not get a single answer as to why there is ‘not more of a CP-shaped hole in British life’. For some, the fight continues but just in other guises and through other institutions; for others, the particular political, intellectual and cultural space that communism occupied ‘has long since closed down’ . All regret the lack of organised opposition to the current economic and political consensus, but not all are certain that the continued existence of the CP would have been able to make a difference.
In his essay, Croft writes that ‘In a sense, all of my writing since 1991 has been an attempt to stop the sand blowing over the ruins until a younger generation can rediscover the necessity of democratic revolutionary change’ . This collection is different from his previous work exploring the literary history of the left but could perhaps be seen as part of the same endeavour. It does not contain any great revelations for anyone familiar with the party or its former members, but the questions it asks will certainly give them a great deal to ponder.
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