Les communismes britannique et français, 1920-1991
Un conte de deux partis
Paris: L’Harmattan, 2020
Paperback. 238 p. ISBN 978-2343196138. €24,50
Reviewed by Jeremy Tranmer
Université de Lorraine
Although communism no longer exists as an organised movement and most communist parties have either declined or disappeared, much academic work continues to be published about this phenomenon which dominated, directly or indirectly, so many people’s lives in the twentieth century. Given the importance of the French Communist Party (PCF) to political life in France for the past hundred years, it is hardly surprising that it continues to be the focus of a great deal of research, both in France and abroad. Even the comparatively small British Communist Party (CPGB), which officially ceased to exist thirty years ago, has been the subject of numerous academic books and articles, predominantly published in the United Kingdom. Communism being an international movement, it is hardly surprising that much work on individual communist parties has a transnational and/or comparative aspect. The relationship of the PCF and the CPGB with the Soviet Union has been examined in detail, particularly after the opening of the Soviet archives to researchers, and both parties have been compared to the Italian Communist Party.
Gavin Bowd’s Les communismes britannique et français, 1920-1991 : Un conte de deux partis is a welcome addition to the historiography of European communism as it is the first book-length account in French of the history of the CPGB. Furthermore, it is the first attempt to compare the CPGB and the PCF. This comparison may seem surprising given the difference of size and importance between the two parties (the CPGB never had more than two MPs at one time and was only a minor irritant to its main left-wing rival, the Labour Party). However, as Bowd notes, the United Kingdom and France are neighbouring countries with demographic and economic similarities and with imperial pasts. Consequently, despite the particularities of both countries (the existence of a revolutionary tradition in France and the strength of reformism in the British labour movement, for example), the CPGB and the PCF existed in similar environments and therefore faced similar challenges. Bowd makes ample use of archival material on both sides of the Channel, giving the reader an insight into the internal lives and functioning of the two parties and into their views of each other, some of which were not always expressed in public.
Unlike many accounts of communist parties, Bowd’s work does not concentrate on the role and personality of general secretaries. His approach allows him to shed light on the activities of activists who are usually left out or marginalised. Thus, Gerry Pocock, who was the CPGB’s international secretary in its final years, emerges from the shadows, as does the English teacher Pierrette Le Corre, who attended congresses of the CPGB and wrote reports on them for the leadership of the PCF. The author Jack Lindsay, who had a keen interest in France, is also frequently referred to. What emerges from the book is the history of a complicated, occasionally conflictual relationship between two parties belonging to the same world movement. The early CPGB believed that intellectuals and literary figures were too influential in the PCF [21-22], while the PCF criticised the CPGB for its excessively supportive approach to the first Labour government . Mutual criticism became much more common and acerbic in the 1980s when the two parties began to follow very different paths. For the CPGB, the PCF remained stuck in its pro-Soviet, workerist past, while the PCF believed that its British counterpart had abandoned communism completely and was increasingly wedded to reformist social democracy [224-234]. Nevertheless, throughout the twentieth century there were examples of solidarity between the two parties and joint activities involving their members. The most significant occasion was probably the 1984-85 British miners’ strike. In a still relatively little-known example of international solidarity, the communist-led CGT trade union organised holidays in France for the children of striking miners and at Christmas 1984 collected huge quantities of toys and food which were distributed to miners’ families [206-224].
In spite of its innovative character, the book does have some weaknesses. Although it appears in a collection intended for academic work, the select bibliography contains only a small number of entries, limiting its use for academics or others who wish to delve a little deeper. Furthermore, the book does not contain an index and more surprisingly does not have a general conclusion giving an overview of the changing relations between the two parties during the seventy years covered. This reinforces the impression (suggested by the book’s title) that it is more of a narrative history of the two parties and their interactions than a detailed analysis of them. More importantly, the focus of the book is occasionally unclear, and it seems to go beyond its initial remit. This is particularly the case when the author uses diplomatic sources. Moving away from the parties’ views of each other, he examines the analyses of the PCF by the British Embassy in Paris and those of the CPGB by the French Embassy in London. In addition, Bowd also uses the archives of the Secret Services to ascertain that the British state monitored the French communists who were occasionally present in the United Kingdom [39-40] as well as British communists who were in contact with their French comrades [48-50]. Although these sources have not been used before, their usefulness here is open to debate since they reveal little about the PCF or the CPGB and more about the fears of the British state.
Overall, Bowd’s work is an interesting contribution to the study of both parties. It shows that despite belonging to the same world movement and having the same objectives, the two parties were markedly different. Moreover, the book goes beyond a presentation of the parties’ frequently declared commitment to internationalism and looks at the various forms internationalism actually took in practice. It is, however, unfortunate that this piece of work will not be available to an English-speaking audience.
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