In December 1989, as Nicolae Ceausescu was led out from the courtroom in Tirgoviste to his summary execution, he began to hum the opening bars of the ‘Internationale’. More than four decades earlier, Primo Levi recalled that as the Red Army speechlessly liberated the fortunate few from Auschwitz, a fellow survivor, a German named Thylle, sat on his bunk and sang the ‘Internationale’ too: ‘in a low stridulous voice, grotesque and solemn at the same time’.
When Ceausescu of the Swiss bank accounts sings, we feel sick. When Thylle, ten long years in the Lager, sings, we weep. It is a reminder that the Communist tradition has left its imprint deep in the souls of many different people from many different countries, and that those who identify with it are neither only oppressors nor only oppressed. They are not all wicked nor all noble, but a mixture of these and every other quality. This is the only spirit in which the history of the Communist movement can properly be understood, particularly in its pre-Cold War heyday.
About Turn is a tough book to read, even for those of us who maintain a perverse fascination with the affairs of the British Communist Party (and what a surprisingly large number of us there are – a further sign of Communism’s many-sided legacy). It is a verbatim account of the meetings of the CP’s Central Committee in September 1939, and much of it is a jungle of cliché and jargon. A 1984 publication from Lawrence and Wishart, 1939: The Communist Party and the War, edited by John Attfield and Stephen Williams, complements and illuminates the new volume. This is the transcript of a conference held in 1979, in which several Communists of the 1939 generation explained what they thought was going on in their minds at the time.
Few episodes in the history of British Communism are more important than the decision of the Communist Party of Great Britain to alter its view of the Second World War. It was a crucial moment for the credibility of the Party. Ten years afterwards, one of the most sympathetic of the Central Committee’s 1939 protagonists, J.R. Campbell, told a friend: ‘We should have supported the war the whole time. It would have made our Party and we would have had at least fifty Communist MPs if we had.’ When Poland was invaded on 1 September, and before the expiry of the British Government’s ultimatum to Hitler, the Communist Party supported the war. War, they agreed unanimously at a Central Committee meeting on 2 September, would be a continuation of the fight against Fascism. Two days later, after war was declared, the Daily Worker announced: ‘The war is here. It is a war that CAN and MUST be won.’ A few days later, an editorial appeared under the headline: ‘To betray Poland is to betray Britain.’ On 14 September the Party published a pamphlet by general secretary Harry Pollitt entitled ‘How to Win the War’. It declared: ‘To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beast rides roughshod over Europe, would be the betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism.’
That same day, however, 14 September, Moscow Radio made a broadcast. It included the sentence: ‘There is no doubt in the minds of the Soviet people that this war is an imperialist and predatory war for a new redivision of the world, a robber war kindled from all sides by the two imperialist groups of powers.’ A telegram containing the details of the broadcast arrived at the Daily Worker and was abruptly suppressed by Pollitt.
The problem itself could not be so easily disposed of. Press reports of a change of Soviet line began to appear. On 24 September, the Central Committee met again, for what it had intended as a preparatory meeting for an emergency party conference endorsing the pro-war stand. Now, though, it was faced with a direct conflict between its own position and the messages emanating from Moscow. The meeting was paralysed by the absence of an authoritative statement of Moscow’s position. ‘I know what I want,’ Pollitt explained to them in a speech advocating a continuation of the pro-war stance. But, he admitted, ‘we are all like a lot of rabbits in front of a snake, wondering whether we are on the right line or the wrong line.’
The answer came that evening, with the arrival from Moscow of Dave Springhall, the Party representative in the offices of the Communist International. Springhall is a shadowy figure, of whom one would like to know much more. He had been a CP official for most of the Thirties and had been a political commissar with the International Brigades in Spain. In 1943 he was convicted of spying, served five years in prison, was expelled from the CP and lived out the rest of his life in China and Moscow, where he died in 1951.
Pollitt was at home snipping the hedge of his front garden in the evening sun when Springhall came up the street with the news that he gave to the Central Committee the following morning: that the Comintern had decided that the war was now an out-and-out imperialist war to which the working-class movements of all countries should be opposed.
About Turn begins with the details of Springhall’s report to the Central Committee. He was closely questioned, but the impact of his news was such that the meeting was forced to adjourn. It reconvened the following weekend, when the full conflict was fought out, and it is the account of this two-day meeting which provides the bulk of the book. Though the argument was labyrinthine, its conclusion was clear. The ‘imperialist war’ position was adopted by 21 votes to three. The following morning, 4 October, the Daily Worker led its front page with a story which declared: ‘We are against the continuance of the war.’ Pollitt resigned as general secretary, his job going to Rajani Palme Dutt, who emerges in the transcripts as the chief advocate of the eventual majority line. The Communist Party continued to oppose the war until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, when (ironically after some prompting from the Comintern) it came out in favour of ‘the broadest united national front around the Churchill Government’. In July 1941, Pollitt was reinstated as general secretary.
These debates reveal far, far more than the truth about a particular moment. In a handful of cases – most obviously those of the three who voted against the change of line, Pollitt, Willie Gallacher and J.R. Campbell – they reveal eloquent men in the grip of a huge existential crisis. Pollitt is the most imposing, a tough fanatic of self-evident ability, confident of his views, struggling to reconcile his Englishness and his Bolshevism. ‘Please remember, Comrade Dutt,’ he says at one point, ‘you won’t intimidate me by that language. I was in this movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten.’
For most of the argument Pollitt the cocky English working-class hero has the upper hand. ‘I want to say that I have given more thought and more study to this question of our tactics in war, long before it broke out, than I have to anything else in my life. And I don’t write lightly and in public meetings I don’t speak lightly. There is not one of you who takes the same amount of trouble with a speech as I do.’ A little further on he makes clear what he wants more than anything: ‘Smash the fascist bastards once and for all.’
And yet, and yet. There is another Pollitt here too. ‘I despised myself,’ he says when he explains how he has defended the new policy at four recent meetings in the Forest of Dean coalfield. ‘Don’t ask me for the sake of false unity to give up a position I believe in,’ he complains as the vote nears. Yet when he does lose, Pollitt promptly adjusts, making extremely practical suggestions as to how the decision with which he is so at odds is to be presented in the Daily Worker. At the end, he urges the committee to change Gallacher’s No vote, in his absence, to a Yes. And on 18 November 1939 he submits a letter to the Central Committee saying: ‘I unreservedly accept the policy of the Communist Party and the Communist International and pledge myself to support it ... I recognise that my action in resisting the carrying out of the line of the Communist Party and the Communist International represented an impermissible infraction of our Party discipline, and played into the hands of the class enemy, and especially into the hands of the reactionary labour leaders, who saw in my attitude the justification of their own policy of supporting the Chamberlain Government.’ As an unnamed Home Office civil servant, to whose colleagues we are indebted for the preservation of this particular document, says of Pollitt’s and Campbell’s letters, they are ‘good examples of the working of Communist Party discipline’. But at what cost that discipline was exercised.
Its grip over the behaviour of Communist Party members shows up again and again in other contributions, though to call it ‘discipline’ is really to misname it. On 24 September Maurice Cornforth, the Party’s Eastern Counties organiser (it’s been a long time since the CP had one of those) is arguing strongly for ‘the military defeat of fascism’. A week later, after what he admits is a political somersault, he takes exactly the opposite position: ‘I must say that I have got that sort of faith in the Soviet Union, to be willing to do that,’ he argues, ‘because I believe that if one loses any of that faith in the Soviet Union one is done for as a Communist and Socialist. I remember very distinctly being very impressed by something Comrade Pollitt said at a Party Congress in which he made the statement about the Soviet Union, that they can do no wrong, and it seemed to me at the time that this was rather a funny statement to make. But the fact of the matter is that a socialist state, I believe, in that position can do no wrong, and is doing no wrong, and this is what we have to stick to.’
Many of the members of the Central Committee reached a similar goal by less disarmingly frank intellectual gymnastics. Even so, a number were roundly criticised by Dutt for indulging in ‘acceptance with reservations, that if it was general would leave the Party in a state of complete confusion and helplessness of leadership’. Most, however, fulfilled the role demanded of them by the demon king of this pantomime, Palme Dutt. Dutt dominates and controls these proceedings with a Catoesque monomania and a forensically inflexible vocabulary. As David Edgar has pointed out, Dutt is the one person in the whole drama who takes exactly the same line at the beginning, the middle and the end. He is determined, not just that the Central Committee should bow to Big Brother but that they should love him too.
‘We must and shall reach clearness and effectiveness of the line today,’ he says. ‘We have given time because we don’t want a mechanical vote of acceptance on grounds of discipline while all the feelings and all the convictions are elsewhere. We want acceptance of this line by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction. Absolute and complete conviction, because on that and only on that basis will this line which is going to make enormous demands on all of us be ... really effectively carried through.’
‘The duty of a Communist is not to disagree but accept,’ Dutt said later. On the face of it, Dutt got his way. In fact, of course, the whole thing was a sham, concealing a moral vacuum. ‘We’ll have a go at the buggers yet,’ Pollitt is said to have muttered at the end. ‘Feel more like emulating Garbo and her “alone” feeling just now,’ he wrote to a friend.
Asked about the crisis in 1956, Pollitt said: ‘In 1939 I thought it an anti-fascist war. I thought it then and I think it now.’ So, more embarrassingly, did another player in the game. In 1946, an article under Joseph Stalin’s byline appeared in Soviet Weekly. ‘As distinct from the First World War,’ it said, ‘the Second World War from the very onset assumed the nature of an anti-fascist war, a war of liberation, one of the tasks of which was to reestablish democratic liberties. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war against the Axis states could only strengthen and did actually strengthen the anti-fascist and liberating character of the Second World War.’ Pollitt immediately raised the matter on the Central Committee and a delegation was sent to Moscow to confirm face to face with Stalin that this was so. Stalin duly confirmed it. The CP decided not to publicise the fact.
It has taken half a century for the story to come out, and even now there are many missing details. Part of the explanation is simply that the documents in the case had disappeared, for fascinating reasons. Two copies of the verbatim minutes of the September-October 1939 debates are known to have existed. The first, in line with standard practice among member parties of the Comintern, was taken via Brussels and lodged with the Comintern HQ in Moscow, where it remained until glasnost yielded it up to the British CP in 1989. The second, no less tellingly, was and presumably still is in the hands of MI5 and the Home Office. But the real reason why the story has remained so misty all these years lies closer to the identity and mentality of the British CP. Until relatively recently, any debate within the Party about its past was also a debate about its present. When the CP organised its 1979 conference to discuss the events of 1939, several of the participants were active Party members of the period. They fell into two camps: those, like the then London district secretary Ted Bramley, who had followed the Moscow line but later repented, and others, like the Yorkshire Communist Bill Moore, who stood up in 1979 and reiterated that ‘the defence of the Soviet Union was decisive, absolutely decisive, which it still is, to my mind, despite all the criticisms we may have of the Soviet Union.’
A decade ago, such arguments were not uncommon within the CP. Today, that has all gone. Death, Gorbachev and the irreversible fracturing of the Communist Party under the pressure of the Marxism Today generation have accomplished a fundamental change. The Communist Party now even disowns 1917 itself.
When these documents re-emerged two years ago, they had ceased to have the resonance which they would have had in 1946, when Pollitt and his colleagues decided to draw a veil over Stalin’s devastating admissions. By 1989 it was possible to launch them upon a largely indifferent Party, which was by then so divided about so many other questions that their implications were relatively easy to absorb. Even so, there are still those who believe that the subtext behind the publication of the present volume is an attempt to blame the entire problem on the Soviet Union and the Comintern and to ignore the relevance of the domestic unpopularity of the war in Britain during its ‘phoney’ period.
It is tempting, and not unjust, to regard this publication as a deathbed confession. The Communist Party is broken and directionless: a generation and a political tradition are trying to make then peace with the truth before they quietly pass into history.
It would be impossible to explain why and how the British have gone to war in 1991 without understanding the immense power of the collective British mythology of 1940 – that you must stand up to dictators. Similarly, the debate about war in 1939 does not make historical sense without an understanding of the shadow cast over it by the disater of 1914, when the labour movements and socialist parties of Europe failed to prevent an international conflict which killed millions. One of the greatest attractions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks was that they offered a new, internationalist vision which was embodied in the Comintern and personified by the immensely respected figure of Dimitrov.
Communists were proud to be members of the Comintern, not embarrassed by it. Dutt, an Anglo-Indian who had been opposed to war in 1914, can only be understood in this context. He and his supporters may have been wrong to have such faith, but they were wholly seized of the need to take a historically responsible decision. This helps to explain – even if, again, it does not excuse – the otherwise apparently absurd sectarian hostility among Communists towards the social democratic parties of Europe, whose leaders (except for Ramsay MacDonald) had sold the pass only twenty-five years before. Right and wrong in the argument about war and co-operation with the social democrats seem obvious to us now. In fact, the issue was bitterly contested throughout the inter-war period. It did not spring unannounced onto the political agenda in the late summer of 1939.
It is hard for us to take seriously the conviction evident in these debates about the chances of a workers’ rising in Germany to overthrow Hitler. This is because, thanks to Hitler, we have forgotten the international standing still enjoyed by the German labour and revolutionary movements in the late Thirties. Many of these Central Committee members, like others in their generation, had grown up believing that the revolution would start in Germany. The Spartacist rising was nearer to them in time than the 1968 revolts are to us. Dimitrov and Dutt were not lunatics for thinking that a repetition might be possible.
Listening to Thylle in his bunk in Auschwitz, Primo Levi found himself ‘perturbed, diffident and moved’. It seems a suitable attitude to adopt towards a political project which still has more to teach us than we allow ourselves to admit.