"About Turn: The British Communist Party and the Second World War",edited by Francis King and George Matthews
At the start of World War 2, the leadership of the Stalinist British Communist Party had to turn itself inside out and upside down to keep in step with Stalin’s Russia.
After Hitler came to power the CPs had subordinated everything to "anti-fascism" They advocated working-class alliance with Liberals and Tories to "stop fascism" – German fascism.
Then, suddenly, in August 1939, the USSR and Germany signed a non-aggression pact. It freed Hitler's hands to start World War 2. The USSR undertook to be Hitler’s quartermaster in the war, providing the raw materials Germany would need. On I September, Hitler invaded Poland. On 3 September Britain and France declared war on Germany. On 17 September Stalin's army moved into Poland by prior agreement with Hitler. The fascist and Stalinist armies met as friends and allies in the middle of Poland and partitioned the country into German and Russian territories. Stalin backed Hitler’s "appeal for peace now that Poland is no more".
Hitler and Stalin were firmly locked together. Soon, as had been secretely agreed with Hitler, Stalin would attack Finland; a little later, in 1940, he would annex the three Baltic states. Indeed, at one moment just before the Nazi invasion of Norway and Denmark, it seemed that British troops would land in Finland, and Stalin would be in the world war on Hitler's side.
What did all this mean for the super-anti-fascist parties of the Communist International, parties which had grown substantially and redesigned themselves greatly in five years of anti-fascist Popular Front politics?
The "Molotov-Ribbentrop pact" of August 1939 sent a tremendous shock through the West European and US Stalinist world. But it could be explained. The imperialist democracies did not want to ally with the USSR, and the USSR had a right to look after its own interests. The Russian invasion of Poland could also be explained away: the Russians had gone in to save the Poles from Hitler! Maybe what the Russian state did need not affect the anti-fascist policies of the CPs. They were no less anti-fascist. They could still support the British-French war "against fascism", of which they had long been the heralds and champions.
Or so some of them thought. They continued to think that, for the first two weeks of the World War, and acted accordingly. The General Secretary of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt - who had some standing in the broader working-class movement - rushed out a pamphlet in which he ardently supporting the anti-fascist war: “How To Win The War.” The French CP General Secretary, Maurice Thorez, went one better than Pollitt: he joined the French army! (Within weeks he would desert and flee to Moscow).
The Stalin-Hitler penny began to drop when the Russians invaded Poland and Stalin came out in support of Hitler's "peace programme". Soon the CPs did a fantastic somersault: they discovered that Britain and France were, after all, waging an imperialist war, and that it had to be opposed. And they discovered that Hitler was the injured party. After all, Britain and France had declared war on Germany. And didn’t Britain and France have vast colonial empires? Germany had none. And who had signed a pact of peace and friendship with the USSR? Who, as the central political leader of the British Stalinist movemnt, R Palmw Dutt, editorialised in the party magazine “Labour Monthly”, had capitulated to the Soviet Union and moved into its orbit and gravitational pull? Not Britain and France… Hitler’s peace programme deserved the support of all “progressives”. Their duty now was to oppose and fight the warmongers in Paris and London.
And Fascism, against which they had been fighting a furious war of words for years? Emanuel Litvinov, who had personified the anti-fascist crusade – and was moreover a Jew - was replaced as Russia’s Foreign Minister by Stalin’s long-time lieutinent, Molotov. It was Molotov who told the world the new Stalinist wisdom on Fascism: “Fascism”? Fascism, he said is purely “A matter of taste”. One could take it or leave it.
Suddenly, the CPs in belligerent France and Britain, which had been built over the last five years as antifascist movements, became open pro-German propagandists, agitating on behalf of Hitler's grievances against his “reactionary” “imperialist” opponents.
The looser sympathisers of the CPs ran for their lives, and for their sanity, in a great stampede. The working-class hard core stayed: many of them had found the old Popular Front snuggling up to Tories and Liberals and French Radicals hard to enthuse about. The post-Hitler-Stalin Pact pseudo-revolutionary posturing of the CPs against their own imperialism was more like the old communism. These working-class would-be communists stood up to the repression that now hit them. The French party was banned, and in Britain the pro-Hitler peace-mongering party paper, the Daily Worker, was eventually banned too.
“About Turn” tells the story of the discussion that took place in the leadership of the British CP after the outbreak of war, when it became necessary for them either to break with Stalin and the USSR or to stand on their heads politically. It is a verbatim record of the Central Committee proceedings. It may, as the editors claim, be the only verbatim record of such a discussion in the leadership of a CP anywhere.
It is a record of how serious and dedicated people, who wanted to be communists and revolutionaries, most of them with brave histories of a long struggle in working-class causes, convinced themselves in a matter of days to turn inside out most of what they had been saying to the working class movement for the last five years. It is the record of how what Stalin had done and was saying, was accepted and rationalised from by his British followers.
At the start most of the CPGB leaders seemed to be against any change of line. In little over a week all but three - Pollitt, J R Campbell, and the party's only MP, Willie Gallacher - had changed outright. The choice was stark: to go along with Stalin, or to break away from what they saw as the great world-wide army of working-class socialist revolution. The surprise was that three of them for a while resisted getting the party into line with the Stalin-Hitler deal.
That sort of choice, faced in various guises, again and again, from the mid-'20s onward, inched millions of people who started out as communists, bit by bit away from socialist politics, and destroyed the Communist International as a working-class revolutionary force. But by 1939 these people had made the choice often enough, on issues like the Moscow Trials, for the outcome now to be certain for most of them, no matter the strain. And so it proved.
Real political discussion didn't come into it. It was all a matter of afterthoughts, rationalisations, looking for “good reasons” for adopting Stalin's point of view.
What I find remarkable in the book is how much of a semblance of a real discussion they managed to put up for their own benefit. The stark truth is that the Comintern Representative on the leading committee, David Springhall,– who was the representative too of the GPU, the Stalinist political police -- laid down the line and they knew what the outcome of their discussion had to be.
There was a strong socialist case against the policy of 1934-9, and genuine splinters and shards of socialist politics and revolutionary working-class feeling could be utilised to dress up and justify the new line. That happened in the French party. Their submission to Stalin could be passed of as a question of loyalty to the workers' state and the revolution; their opposition to their own ruling class could be presented as reversion to revolutionary politics. But however it was dressed up it was rationalisation on a basis of faith and discipline and mind-annihilating prostration before the Pope in the Kremlin. The rituals and sleights of mind were more akin to the religious discipline of the Jesuit Order in its great days 400 years earlier than to a self-liberating and self-emancipating working class organisation.
The words of the Internationale must have stuck in their craws next time they got around to singing it: “No saviour from on high deliver/ No faith have we in prince or peer/ Our own right hand the chains must sever/ Chains of hatred, greed and fear.
The decision "for the line of the Communist International" was carried with the three votes against. But the three were loyal and disciplined party members.
Within weeks they had confessed their sins and mistakes and "self-criticised” their errors. Pollitt had to retired as General Secretary. Since the Party didn't have a jail to lock him up in, the power to put him on trial and make him confess that he had been a police spy from 1919 onward, Pollitt lived to come back as Secretary, when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. He remained in the job until 1956, when Stalin’s successor, Kruschev denounced Stalin as a paranoid mass murderer.
Now the CPGB became super-patriotic again, so long as Russia was allied with Britain. The party went all-out on uncritical support to the Tory-Labour coalition government - strikebreaking, witch-hunting strikers and denouncing “Trotskyite” agents of Hitler, advocating a "Second Front", that is, a British-US invasion of Hitler-occupied Europe. Pollit made a memorable patriotic speech summing up the principles of the Party during the war: “Today, it is the class-conscious worker who will cross the picket line”!
In German-occupied France, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the USSR the CP in Paris had been negotiating with the Nazis for the right to publish L'Humanite, its daily paper, banned by the French government in 1939. Now it swung into organising the Resistance.
Maurice Thorez had it harder than Pollitt. He didn't get back to France until 1944, when he was allowed in under licence from the bourgeois "Free French" leader, General Charles de Caulle. "Thorez", said de Gaulle in his memoirs, was a useful man to have around.
So he was: the French CP joined the post war government and helped to disarm the French working class and rebuild the French bourgeois state, backing that state against colonial rebels in Algeria and Vietnam. It was kicked away into opposition once more, in 1947.
“About Turn” is edited from the viewpoint of the ex-Stalinist "God knows what we are now" CP people around the journal “Marxism Today”.
The introduction, by Monty Johnstone, is party hack work. Evading many questions and issues, he gives the Party the best case he can. You would not know from Johnstone about the pto-German propaganda of the party.
Johnstone, who was for many years the Party specialist on "Trotskyism", and who was himself briefly a Trotskyist in the later '40s, deliberately endorses misleading statements about Trotskyist attitudes to the war. You would think the Trotskyists in Britain were indifferent to the prospects of a Nazi victory and made no distinction between Nazism and British bourgeois democracy.
In fact the Trotskyists advocated a "proletarian military policy", which was as near to "revolutionary defencism" as you could get, short of proclaiming it. There is a tremendous amount of confusing theology encrusted, like decades of coral growth, around this question. I think that the policy of the Trotskyist Workers' International League was right. Both sides in the war were imperialist, and they denounced Britain's imperialist war aims. But there was a great difference between British bourgeois democracy and Nazism, so they linked the call for working-class revolution to the need for an effective fight against the Nazis. They said that the working class could not trust the British bourgeoisie to fight fascism.
That was not, as you might think from the book, anything like the policy the book tells you the CP promoted in 1939-41. Even less was it anything like the actual pro-German policy pursued by the CPGB then.
Pollitt is the hero of Johnstone's account. But I can't believe that even the utterly misguided Harry Pollitt of 1941-7 would recognise the Marxism Today crew as his children. Yet they are - and Stalin's children too.