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The Archives of the Communist Party Of Great Britain: An Introduction

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Authored by Professor Kevin Morgan
Published on 20th January, 2020 20 min read

The Archives of the Communist Party Of Great Britain: An Introduction

Stalin, to go by a famous throwaway remark, had little time for 'archive rats'. Certainly, in his day and long afterwards the nosing out of archival detritus was an activity largely denied the historians of communism. In most cases, this was as true of the communist parties set up internationally as vehicles for the revolution as it was of the USSR itself. The sudden accessibility of archives following the collapse of Europe's communist regimes consequently proved something of a revelation. For the period of the Communist International (1919-43), an enormous documentation relating both to the international and to its constituent parties was made accessible in the former Central Party Archives in Moscow. The case of the British party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, or CPGB, was typical. 

Files relating directly to the party itself ran to more than a thousand; others were generated by ancillary organisations, or by discussions and activities relating to British communism in Moscow. Just as importantly, the opening of these archives acted as a catalyst for a similar spirit of openness in respect of the archives retained by the parties themselves. The British case, again, is not untypical. Archivally speaking, it had for many years remained the 'forbidden no-man's land' that its first outside historian encountered in 1958. Its study had therefore depended considerably on the last resorts of conjecture, inference and detective work characteristic of Western Kremlinology. 

Already in the CPGB's final years, increasing interest in its history, both within and beyond the party's ranks, elicited at least a formal recognition of the desirability of access. However, it was only in the very final years before the CPGB's dissolution in 1991 that a process of opening up began. With its replacement in 1991 by the Democratic Left, this then culminated in the deposit of the archives in Manchester's National Museum of Labour History, now the Labour History Archive and Study Centre (LHASC) of the People's History Museum. 

Accessible in LHASC since the end of 1994, the collections have already given rise an extensive published literature and a series of PhD dissertations. With the provision of on-line access to the archives, one may be confident that the resurgence of historical interest will continue

There is no attempt to give a summary of this literature here. The aim of this introduction is simply to provide some brief historical context regarding the creation of the archives, to outline the main classes of material to be found within the collection and to give an indication of the relationship between these and other source materials for British communism, notably in the Moscow archives.

Background and Historical Context

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was formed in the summer of 1920 as a coming together of Britain's hitherto fissiparous Marxist groupings. Urged on by Lenin himself, the party not only functioned as a section of the Communist International, or Comintern, but drew the bulk of its funding from the same source. Over the course of the 1920s, these relations were cemented, for example, by the permanent representation of the CPGB at the Comintern in Moscow; and by the sending of regular enrolments of British students to the International Lenin School. Over the course of the 1930s, organisational ties were somewhat relaxed; the Lenin School closed its doors in 1935, and the Comintern had no permanent representative stationed in Britain during the entire decade. Nevertheless, the CPGB's faithful adherence to the 'Moscow' line was dramatically demonstrated by its successive reversals of policy towards the Second World War. When the Comintern was dissolved in 1943, party leader Harry Pollitt was supposed to have said that it had in effect "been... a branch of the Russian Party".

Although it was always more than that, it is this defining relationship which explains the CPGB's singularly curious archival inheritance. In adhering to the Comintern, with its famously exacting 'twenty-one conditions' of admission, the CPGB accepted a practice of democratic centralism in which the ultimate authority of the international over its constituent parties was explicitly established. Just as the lines of accountability flowed inexorably upwards, so accordingly were the records of the Comintern's member parties sent for the scrutiny and future custody of its Moscow apparat. In the British party's case, such transfers were organised systematically from 1923, when the party had its first permanent representative in Moscow.5 The party's legendary 'glass fortress' at 16 King Street, Covent Garden, may thus be seen, archivally at least, less as a headquarters than as the national branch office indicated by Pollitt.

Doubtless key documents were retained for a period by the party itself. But the constant attentions of the Special Branch, breaking out into occasional raids on King Street, were not an inducement to careful records management. As early as May 1921 the party's secretary was arrested and its headquarters divested of every last scrap of paper, its more sensitive records only eluding the authorities through a last-minute tip-off. Four years later, in October 1925, twelve communist leaders were arrested and their offices stripped of all incriminating evidence, this time not excluding the King Street lavatory ballcock. Trial and imprisonment on trumped-up sedition charges followed. A few of the saltiest documents seized and they mostly turned out not to be very scandalous were subsequently published as a parliamentary paper, providing later historians with a rare glimpse of the party's private affairs.9 Some years later, by the same circuitous route, the only available summary of the CPGB's heated debates over the war in 1939 turned up as a War Cabinet memorandum in what is now the National Archives. Apparently the source was a raid on the home of Anne Gresser, secretarial assistant to the acting party secretary R. Palme Dutt. MI5 files on British communists, which have begun to be released under Freedom of Information legislation, show the extent and intrusiveness of such surveillance, which was by no means confined to activities of political significance. It is therefore understandable that even the CPGB, as one of the Comintern's few continuously legal sections, did not retain significant records for immediate use. Individuals did in some cases retain documents and correspondence; and Dutt's personal deposit in the party archives comprises a particularly rich source for the party's early years. On the whole, however, it was thanks to the diligent care of Soviet archivists that a record of the party's first decades was preserved. The main organisational holdings in the CPGB's own archives date only from after the dissolution of the Comintern.

There were a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that the communist party in Britain was, in theory at least, to be regarded henceforth as an entirely autonomous organisation. Its membership at this point had peaked at over fifty thousand, boosted by Britain's wartime shift to the left and the enthusiasm that many felt for Britain's Soviet ally. In this atmosphere of benign Russophilia, the hounding of the communists by the authorities was also somewhat abated, though never discontinued as attested by the presence of a King Street bugging device among the artefacts presented to the People's History Museum. There were to be no more raids, however, nor consignments of archives to Moscow. It is consequently in this period that appreciable quantities of official party documents began to accumulate at King Street. A reconfigured organisation department or 'org. dept.' was the key to records management; it maintained personal or 'cadre' files after the fashion of the Comintern, and similarly collected reports and correspondence from the party districts as the Comintern had its national sections. Naturally, due to differences both of resources and of political culture, the operation was on a lesser scale. Nevertheless, in the person of Betty Reid the CPGB had an extremely capable administrator, whose role in matters of 'vigilance' earned her the reputation of a tough-minded Stalinist as well as the attentions of a police spy who penetrated her own home. As the CPGB's librarian in later years, it was Reid who in a very different political climate helped initiate the process of making these archives generally accessible. Augmented in later years as the party began self-consciously to safeguard its own history, the origins of the collection go back to the records management system she helped to establish in the later war years.

The CPGB’s Closed Books

As late as 1986, when the present author sought access to the archive, none was provided and not even a summary description of its contents was available. The reasons for such secrecy went to the very heart of the party's identity. This, in its own perception, was no mere ginger group or fringe organisation. Rather, as its rules and programme put it, it was the vanguard of the working class, "based on the impregnable foundations of Marxist theory, the science embodying the experiences of the international working class...and demonstrated in history as the theory and practice which brings...socialism". With this assertion went claims to moral authority, political consistency and scientific insight almost without parallel in British politics at least if one excepts cuttings and offshoots from the same Leninist stock. It was in the nature of such organisations that the CPGB could brook no disinterested investigation of its flawed and tempestuous past. Claims of unity meant that internal controversies should not be disinterred. Claims of autonomy meant that links with Moscow should not fully be acknowledged. Claims of infallibility meant that somersaults and double-flips should be disregarded if possible, rationalised if not. It seemed that even the mildest and most sympathetic investigation was impermissible.

If this excluded co-operation with outside historians, it also ruled out any plausible attempt at an official party history. The experience of the first party historian, Tom Bell, was in this regard a salutary one. Bell was a leading figure in the party's formative years who spent much of the 1930s in Moscow, where he lectured at the Comintern's International Lenin School. Based as it was on such lectures, Bell's Short History of the British party was passed for publication after what seems to have been a cursory inspection in 1937. As the book was published, however, zealous critics, both in London and Moscow, noticed how awkwardly Bell's lingering sectarianism fitted with the blander nostrums of the popular front. Hastily, the volume was withdrawn, and a review savaging its hapless author appeared in the party's theoretical journal, the Labour Monthly. Amid the temporary and contingent problems identified by the reviewer, Allen Hutt, was a more fundamental objection, coyly omitted from the published review. "International experience," wrote Hutt, "even indicates that a history of the Party only becomes possible and right after the seizure of power." In 1937 that could only be a reference to the lying histories of the Soviet communist party, which was then dealing with its Tom Bells in an exemplary fashion. It was also to remain the CPGB's position for some two decades to come. "This booklet is in no sense an attempt to write, even briefly, an historical record of the Communist Party of Great Britain," R. Page Arnot introduced a commemorative account in 1940. "The time for that," he added pregnantly, "has not yet come."

If power was its prerequisite, then a communist party history in Britain would remain a distant prospect. For years this assumption nevertheless went almost without demur. Among resolutions critical of the leadership at the 1945 party congress, one, moved by the Cambridge party branch, proposed that "a Commission be set up to prepare a history of the British Communist Party with analysis and documentation for its first 25 years." That the same branch also formulated a range of criticisms of the party's more immediate policies can only have confirmed suspicions of the potentially destabilising character of such an enterprise. Even the party's energetic Historians' Group did not take it up. A pioneering project on British labour history did seem to promise an engagement with the party's own past; but the volume that was eventually published in 1956 ended question-beggingly with the CPGB's formation. In the words of Eric Hobsbawm, a leading figure in the Historians Group: "The gap between what historians thought it necessary to write and what was regarded as officially possible and desirable...proved too large." Among the bolder spirits was the communist lecturer and translator, Brian Pearce, originally a Tudor historian but increasingly in the post-war years drawn to digging up unwanted relics of the CPGB's own past. Amid extravagant official paeans, Pearce had in 1949 circulated his own offering, On the Twentieth Anniversary of Comrade Pollitt Becoming General Secretary of Our Party, a mischievous invocation of the sectarian excesses that had accompanied Pollitt's accession to the leadership at the height of the sectarian 'Class Against Class' period. Discreetly Pearce was called in by the party's London district secretary, John Mahon, and reminded that, true or false, tales that might assist the party's enemies were best left untold. Bound like others by his sense of party discipline, Pearce's researches for the time being remained unpublished.

For Pearce, as for so many others, 1956 was the year in which discipline, like the assumption of infallibility in which it was rooted, was shattered. In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev's speech to the closed session of the CPSU's twentieth congress provided the first official confirmation of the crimes committed under Stalin. Towards the end of the same year, the Red Army's suppression of revolt in Hungary dashed hopes of a fundamental break with the past. For many British communists, newly undeceived or now admitting their misgivings, the momentous jolt out of complacency prompted an urge to get to grips with this troubled inheritance. If Stalin's was a reign at once of terror and ineptitude, they reasoned, what then of the British communists who had identified with his vaunted achievements, even to the point of accepting their policy directives from Moscow? In that sense, as Hobsbawm later put it, "the crucial question of Stalin was literally one of history...[and] the suppression of Soviet history could not be divorced from the question of why other parts of contemporary history had not been confronted, not least such hotly disputed episodes in the history of the British CP as the 'Third Period' and 1939-41." It was appropriate therefore that communist historians were, along with the Party's journalists, foremost among those demanding a complete break with Stalinism. Eventually this would take many of them out of the party altogether; but, in its parting shot as a united body, the Historians' Group pressed the party leadership for a genuine CPGB history. The commission that resulted, meeting for the first time towards the end of 1956, marked the beginning both of the writing of the Party's own history and of the collection of materials relating to that history.

The enterprise was hardly carried out at a Bolshevik tempo. Some communist leaders, like the commission's first chairman, Harry Pollitt, remained frankly opposed to any party history prior to its attainment of power ("and even then there are problems," added Pollitt, an apparently cynical reference to the rehabilitation of Bela Kun and consequent withdrawal from circulation of Hungary's official party history). Others like Palme Dutt were more sympathetic to the historians' demands, but held that sensitive episodes, like the communists' opposition to the war during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact (1939-41), were for the time being best left alone. Here, the reservation was expressed that "documents would have to be used that would cause great diplomatic repercussions": a clear reference to the party's Moscow connections. Already in 1956, material was being collected for a history of the party that was to have been written by R. Page Arnot. That these reservations were eventually overcome was due to two reasons. One was the example set by the Parti Communiste Francais in commencing work on its own history, albeit under the close jurisdiction of party officials. The second was the growing prospect of "definite enemies" publishing their own distorted histories "to slur and slander the role of the Party." Among the latter were Henry Pelling, whose single-volume party history was announced in 1957, and Brian Pearce, who pseudonymously contributed the New reasoned pamphlets published by party rebels (and historians), John Saville and E.P. Thompson. James Klugmann, a Cambridge-educated lecturer and functionary, therefore proposed an official party history to put these matters right. "It seems impossible for our Party to abdicate on this, leaving the presentation of its history in the hands of the enemies of our Party," noted Klugmann. "Besides," he added, almost as an afterthought, "there is nothing to be ashamed of...On the contrary." Coming from the author of the abysmal From Trotsky to Tito, these seem somewhat complacent sentiments. That Klugmann was to be appointed the party's official historian did not portend a particularly full or critical reckoning.

Klugmann's work bore no immediate fruit. Nevertheless, the appointment of an official historian did provide a focus for the accumulation of archival materials. A library had been established at the party's King Street headquarters as early as 1951, but it was the establishment of the history commission that encouraged what would now be called a more 'proactive' collecting policy. A collection of leaflets, pamphlets and periodicals had already been assembled by the party's librarian, retired building worker Frank Jackson. To these were now added scarce archival items, such as early branch minute books from Sheffield, as well as various short memoirs produced specifically for the commission. Substantial quantities of material piled up at Klugmann's London home as he persevered with his thankless commission. With his death in 1977, and the need to accommodate Klugmann's working collections, the party took steps to make specific provision for its archives when it moved to new headquarters in St John Street, near Smithfield, in 1980.

By this time the study of British communism was well advanced, if generally starved of archival nourishment. Klugmann's own volumes on the CP's formative years, published in 1968-9, drew on no sensitive materials and touched on no sensitive questions. Despite having rejected the idea of a collectively produced history, CPSU-style, Klugmann's task was very much that of producing self-censored drafts for further bowdlerisation by party elders. He ought, Hobsbawm has commented, to have refused it. Nor did Klugmann, or the party itself, welcome the attentions of outside scholars. "Dozens and dozens of histories of Parties are being written by people antagonistic to Marxism or by young people under their influence," Klugmann wrote in the 1960s. "In Britain you can expect 'theses' in the next few years on the NUWM, Minority Movement, League Against Imperialism, Party, YCL, etc., etc., etc." In fact, writers like Lesley MacFarlane, a former CPGB member, and the sociologist Kenneth Newton, were critical in the best sense and not at all 'antagonistic'. Nevertheless, they were treated warily by King Street, and Newton, for example, found that party branches had been warned against dealing with him. For internal documentation of the communist-sponsored Minority Movement, Roderick Martin relied heavily on papers preserved by Jack Tanner, as he might have done on an East European defector. On the whole, however, defectors at leadership level had figured remarkably little in any except the very earliest period of the CPGB's history. While officially sanctioned memoirs gave away few secrets, neither the literature of disillusionment nor archival deposits of similar provenance were anything like as abundant as in the French or American case. As late as 1971, the old taboos could be strongly reasserted in response to an indiscreet revelation of Dutt's. "The Political Committee considers it undesirable that statements on...important events in the history of our Party should be made by individuals," Dutt was warned. "[A]ny matters concerning Party history must be the subject of consultation."

Opening the Archives

If the party's history nevertheless began to flourish, this was because a younger generation of historians, many of them communists, were less concerned with rummaging in King Street's murky cupboards than with retrieving the social movements and grassroots mobilisations that they identified with communism. Key influences were Gramscianism and the new social history, and with their imaginative use of a wide range of sources, notably oral history, these younger historians put no great stress on institutional archives and even warned against a fixation on such materials. Nevertheless, some of these materials also found their way into the Party archives, both before and after their transfer to Manchester. With the relaxation of conditions of access in the Party's very final years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the archives were for the most part now accessible to historians subject only to a formidable cataloguing backlog. With a view to facilitating their further use, the decision was then made in 1992 to deposit the archives in Manchester and ESRC funding was secured to sort the archives and provide a usable inventory. Ownership and responsibility for the archives was vested in the Archive Trust of the Communist Party of Great Britain (1920-1991), to which issues of access or reproduction are referred by the People's History Museum.

The value of the archives would not be universally accepted. Judged by conventional electoral criteria the CPGB was always something of an irrelevance and many of its political concerns can seem esoteric. Some have suggested that British historians should therefore be looking at other movements, and communist historians at other countries. "Of course none of it mattered," A.J.P. Taylor commented in 1966, "Supporting the unions, attacking the unions, trying to join the Labour Party, attacking the Labour Party, United Front, Class against Class, all were phases of no consequence. The story has to be told for its own sake, providing fresh demonstrations of perverse and inexhaustible ingenuity." That may indeed be a fair comment on the tireless mapping out of the 'party line', particularly since this became possible in so much more detail than was ever previously possible. Nevertheless, historians have been drawn to the archives by much more than just the 'bizarre fascination' which Taylor conceded. Partly this is down to the old cliché that the CPGB's influence was disproportionate to its size, and that its more successful initiatives, from the hunger marches and Left Book Club, to the industrial coalitions of the 1970s, did actually count for something. But the CPGB archive also provides a distinctive perspective, both on the often troubled course of twentieth-century British history and on international communism as one of the century's defining movements. Not just for political historians, but for those with interests in cultural history, industrial relations, social movements, memory studies, for historians with the widest spread of interests there is material of interest in the CPGB archives. In the years since their deposit in Manchester they have become an increasingly well-used and widely cited resource. With still greater possibilities of access, this trend is only likely to continue.

Authored by Professor Kevin Morgan

Professor Kevin Morgan

Kevin Morgan is the Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Manchester and recipient of an AHRC Fellowship for the project ‘Communism and the cult of the leader’. Professor Morgan is also the editor of the journal 'Twentieth Century Communism' and a trustee of the Communist Party of Great Britain Archives Trust and the Working Class Movement Library.

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