After seeing one of their former comrades appointed as Jeremy Corbyn’s adviser, do Britain’s hard lefties think their time has finally come? Etan Smallman joins a meeting to find out
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Photos: Micha Theiner
An ageing Fidel Castro peers at us from on high. Vladimir Lenin, in harsh profile, looks back at the Cuban leader. Meanwhile, Karl Marx maintains an imperious stare across the hall.
It is a Thursday evening at the Marx Memorial Library in Islington, north London, and a small group of loyal campaigners are flanked by photos, murals and busts of Communism’s finest as they stack pamphlets and unfurl their blood-red hammer-and-sickle flags across the tables.
Anyone using Google to seek out the group – here for a meeting to discuss “Britain’s road to Socialism” – will already have had to tangle with the mass of similarly named parties jostling to keep the red flame burning.
At this stage – sorry, comrades – one simply cannot fail to think of Monty Python. In the famous scene in Life of Brian, Brian’s question “Are you the Judean People’s Front?” is met with the response: “F**k off! Judean People’s Front? We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”
The UK’s hard left is similarly a throng of like-minded factions riven by a word or two. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t confuse the Communist Party of Britain with the Communist Party of Great Britain – sworn enemies after their split in 1988, which led to the latter being dissolved three years later. Then there is the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and the New Communist Party of Britain, to name just a few.
“Working men of all countries, unite!” the Communist Manifesto proclaimed in 1848. So why on earth are its British adherents of 2018 so fractured? As we chat upstairs – where an exiled Lenin retreated to edit and print his journal in 1902 – Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the CPB, says candidly: “It’s a result of the lack of progress, and to some extent it’s the product of despair and turning inwards.” But he also dismisses the rival “outfits” in turn as “Trotskyist or Maoist or ultra-Leftist” groups who spend too much of their time “attacking the real Communist Party”.
It is true that the CPB is the largest of the parties, although it is only able to boast 900 or so members. Griffiths can also, quite possibly, claim to be the longest-serving party leader in this country. In 2018, he celebrates 20 years in the top job, a fact he confesses is “a source of embarrassment”.
The party garnered only 1,229 votes across nine seats in the 2015 general election – far outstripped by the Monster Raving Loonies and the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol Party. This is not a source of embarrassment. “Vote-winning is not the main reason we stand in elections,” Griffiths tells the audience.
The party has been making waves of late, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendancy. In February, the Labour leader appointed Andrew Murray, previously a member of the CPB for 40 years, as a consultant. Murray has questioned why “hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others” and expressed “solidarity” with North Korea.
And last month, the University College London professor Susan Michie caused a stir when she told a Communist Party meeting: “Members should absolutely be working full-tilt to get Jeremy elected, and the Labour Party into government.” This followed the party’s decision not to field any candidates in the general election last year, for the first time since 1920, instead calling “for a Labour vote in every constituency across Britain”. Inevitably, the move proved a gift for Labour’s enemies, with “Commies come out for Corbyn!” headlines.
As the meeting begins, Griffiths addresses the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. “The Communist Party doesn’t have any hesitation in condemning that,” he announces. “Although, of course, we would have no great love for a turncoat mercenary spy”.
He goes on to condemn the warmongering “psychosis” of politicians, including many Labour MPs, and “levels of hypocrisy and hysteria that would be funny if the situation were not quite so tragic and serious”.
“What really upsets the ruling class in Britain about Putin and his government is that they have obstructed imperialism’s strategic plans on the interface between Asia and Europe,” Griffiths says.
Griffiths, a 65-year-old former college lecturer, is a daily reader of the Financial Times (“the voice of the class enemy”), and owns “a half-share in a terraced house in Splott, in Cardiff”. Marx and Engels wrote in their Manifesto: “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” But Griffiths seeks to reassure me: “Certainly we don’t think in terms of nationalising everybody’s house.”
The essence of the party’s mission, he says, is to imagine a world after capitalism, which has “now outlived its usefulness to humanity and has shown itself incapable of solving even the most fundamental problems of human society. The only alternative would be a socialist society, based on collective ownership and control of the great economic, social, political and military forces.”
The party, which is linked to the Morning Star, the only English-language socialist national daily newspaper in the world, is fervently pro-Brexit, with one contributor at the meeting positing that leaving the single market will result in “either a Tory tax haven or a socialist heaven”.
Whatever you make of the ideology, you can’t fault the tenacity. Ruth Styles, 59, the chair of the London district of the CPB, has been active since she signed up to its youth wing aged 13. But she admits that even fellow trade unionists have been puzzled as to why she joined. “My answer is always the same: because I believe getting a Labour government is only part of the answer,” she tells i. “I mean, capitalism across the world is destroying our planet. Unless we have a fundamental change in our approach to economics, the whole human race is at risk.”
Michael Quinn, 20, has had first-hand experience at the sharp-end of the gig economy, working in the hospitality industry. Now branch secretary of the Young Communist League in Portsmouth, the music technology student ditched his Labour membership to join two years ago.
“You get the usual ‘Stalinist’ insults and we get quite a lot of hassle from far-right groups,” he says, adding that communist is widely seen as “a dirty word”. “But generally, people are quite supportive. I’ve never lost a friend because of my politics.”
He rejects the idea that Communists are preoccupied with argument over action: “Marxism is the only sort of revolutionary idea that actually has any application in the real world. I see the need for a party in Britain that can actually offer revolutionary solutions for the working class. Because frankly we cannot just have a mild form of social democracy. We need an explicitly revolutionary party.”
“A Communist is like a crocodile,” Winston Churchill once said. “When it opens its mouth you cannot tell whether it is trying to smile or preparing to eat you up.” But nowadays, talk of Communists is more likely to trigger a laugh than a shudder.
Tabloids frequently refer to the “Loony left” and, last year, The Death of Stalin had cinema-goers splitting their sides with what Griffiths criticised at the time as “crude anti-Communist stereotypes”. However, he is keen to insist he doesn’t mind a laugh – regaling me with Cold War-era “gallows-humour” gags about the Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Timoshenko. It was Marx, after all, who said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Joking aside, critics of the movement would be appalled simply at its symbolism. The CPB is the only party in Britain allowed to use the hammer and sickle on ballot papers. To many, the emblem – despite predating the Soviet Union – represents the horrors of the regime under which millions died.
But Griffiths says he has no reservations whatsoever about using it, arguing that it is peculiarly British to see “a symbol of brutality and gulags and the rest of it. I’m afraid that’s as much a reflection of Cold War propaganda as anything else. Despite the crimes and mistakes, we still think it stands for something that is much more positive than negative”.
To an outsider, British Communism may appear an idyll of ideology; a place of pamphlets, in which theory is king and where you get more kudos for quoting Engels’ 170-year-old proclamations than proposing ways to abolish zero-hour contracts. The average Communist member is “more ideological” than their Labour counterparts, Griffiths concedes, and “there’s a danger of that turning into dogmatism and arrogance”.
But one can also see the appeal; their world view is of the purest form, totally unfettered by anything as ignoble as wooing an electorate.
Griffiths insists that though the Labour leader has been friendly towards the movement, he is merely a “principled socialist” and “is not a Communist and never has been. I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn would have been at all comfortable being a member of the CPB through the decades. I suspect he would have found himself in hot water on more than one occasion – and probably ended up being expelled”.
With an insurgent Corbyn (Communist or not) at the helm of Her Majesty’s Opposition, a labour market in violent flux, rising inequality and international rage against globalisation, if the Reds are to have their moment in the sun, it should surely be now.
As Griffiths declares: “The fight is on.” Bourgeois imperialists everywhere, you have been warned.