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Communist Party of Great Britain Archive

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Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 12th September, 2023 5 min read

Communist Party of Great Britain Archive

With the publication of our latest collection, The Political Culture of British Communism, 1920-1991, British Online Archives are pleased to announce the completion of the migration of the archive of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Comprising over 253,455 images hosted in nineteen unique collections, the CPGB archive offers a look at everything from Marxist cooptation of popular culture to radical organising in the trade union movement. 

Founded in 1920 by activists from across a range of fragmented left-wing groups, the CPGB was formed in response to the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the demands for a similarly strong left-wing voice in British politics. As such, the CPGB mirrored the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in structure and rules, and aimed at a revolution in Britain based on Marxist-Leninist principles. 

The CPGB’s isolated position on the far-left of British politics did not stop it from thrusting itself into the struggle for workers rights during the 1920s. The National Minority Movement sought to radicalise a moderate trade union movement with limited success, and the Party was also involved in mobilising efforts for the unsuccessful General Strike of 1926.

A common theme throughout the history of the CPGB was its susceptibility to events occurring in the Soviet Union, which acted as a patriarchal figure in the International Communist Movement. After Stalin’s effective seizure of power in the late 1920s, Comintern dictated that Communist parties should follow the ‘Class Against Class’ doctrine, which asserted that social democratic parties like Labour were enablers of fascism and therefore all cooperation should cease. 

This was eventually overturned in the 1930s after the election of Hitler and increase in malicious fascist activity across Europe. The intense class warfare transformed into the desire for a ‘United Front’ which aimed to work with any groups that opposed fascism. The CPGB was very active in mobilising in defence of the Spanish Republic and these efforts are documented in multiple collections. Debate and Division on the British Left, 1917-1964 features correspondence from Molly Murphy, an ex-Communist who volunteered as a nurse in Spain. Meanwhile, Notable Individuals of British Communism, 1920-1991 features the papers of Peter Kerrigan, who worked as a newspaper correspondent during the Civil War.

The alliance between Britain, America, and the Soviet Union during the Second World War briefly made communism palatable in the 1940s. This is when the CPGB reached the peak of its powers, receiving nearly 100,000 votes and having two MPs elected in 1945. This favourability was to be shattered with the advent of the Cold War. Communism and the Cold War, 1944-1986, offers insights into the erection  of the ‘Iron Curtain’ as well as the emergence of deep divisions within the International Communist Movement.

The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 might have heralded a transformation in the authoritarian character of the CPSU, but hopes of this were quickly dashed by the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. This posed an existential dilemma for the CPGB, who were torn between the pressure of public opinion in Britain and a reliance on the CPSU for resources and credibility. Democratic Centralism during the Cold War, 1943-1991 and Communism in Crisis in Britain and Abroad, 1931-1977 both demonstrate how the CPGB tried to walk this difficult line during key flashpoints of the Cold War.

Despite multiple crises of communism on the world stage, the CPGB still held an outsized influence in certain areas of domestic politics. Radical Trade Unionism in Britain, 1921-1991, is drawn from papers of the CPGB’s Industrial Department, which sought to organise the party’s strategy in relation to industry and trade unions. During the 1970s, National Organiser Bert Ramelson proved highly effective in spreading Communist influence and militant tactics to moderate trade unions.

The 1970s also saw the CPGB trying to navigate the explosion of new social movements. Gender, Feminism, and the British Left, 1944-1991, examines how the CPGB tried to coopt, influence, and contain the energies of feminism that swept across the Western world. These new unruly organisations, with their decentralised structures and distrust of authority, proved a challenge for the traditional leadership and rigid tactics of the CPGB.

The 1980s was when the CPGB firmly entered its death spiral. Spurned on by Perestroika in the Soviet Union, the CPGB took time to examine its own place in British politics. This ended in the party’s rebranding as the Democratic Left in 1991. This coincided with the complete collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the collections have material from the dramatic final years of the CPGB, but none detail it as well as The Political Culture of British Communism, 1920-1991. This features extensive documentation from the national congresses that saw the party descend into chaos over proposed future plans.

During the 1990s, the Democratic Left changed from political party to think-tank, and was eventually dissolved in 1998.

British Online Archives invites researchers and students to explore the rich history of British radicalism through the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.

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