This examination of the history of communists in Great Britain is based on "a prosopographical approach to the subject". This means a study of individual communists' experience in relation to society as a whole and the application sociological categories including ethnicity, class, gender and mobility, to explain the source and course of the actions of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its acolytes. The authors attempt this in a thematic, rather than a chronological, way. The result is still the same as that described by Walter Kendall in his study of the revolutionary movement in Great Britain. The CPGB from its inception were not human beings but puppets of the Soviet Union. The authors dispute Kendall's interpretation and make a valiant effort to put some flesh on the bones of the Party with personalised accounts of individual members' histories but the chasm between political reality and party doctrine is never satisfactorily closed.
In terms of the sociology of the CPGB there is little which is new to historians, although the authors seem to imagine they have discovered previously untold but important secrets. Marxism has all the characteristics of a secular religion. In that sense it has long been recognised that the CPGB provided secular comfort and support for those for whom traditional religion no longer explained the world as it was and how it would inevitably become in accordance with the doctrines of Marxism-Leninsim. Any admission that the doctrine demanded a suspension of reason, or the right to question its veracity, would destroy the psychological integrity of the true believer. Many early Communists were intellectually awakened by the Russian Revolution and were unable to develop from the naïve view that it was the start of a new form of society rather than the continuation of the old with a different oligarchy at the helm.
The CPGB mouthpiece R Palme Dutt claimed communism was a life-outlook. "Communism is a complete world conception covering every aspect of life and transforming all our thinking and activity: the comradeship of Communism draws us into a great collective movement, in which all can find their realisation, and in which the old distinctions of politics and life, of political activity and private life, disappear and lose their meaning". Substitute "Islam" for "Communism" and Dutt's comment is an expression of radical Islam of which Osama Bin Laden would be proud.
That "comradeship" created a religious fervour for anti-democratic principles such as "discipline" and "obedience" and blind commitment to the Party before all other considerations. The leadership of the Party was divorced from the reality of the membership which, despite indoctrination, consisted of the "unthinking masses" they despised. Taking their politics from Moscow the Party was able to adopt the language of revolution while watering it down with social practice. Women were treated less favourably than men and meetings were often informal drinking sessions. Despite the public school fashion of rebellion, the gap between intellectuals and working class membership was never bridged. The Party was a collection of friends held together by a shared ideology which subsumed their individual personalities and made them complicit in the denial of Realpolitik.
What is characteristic of many of the verbal sources is their anonymity. In a world of Premier League players they were strictly non-League and not even Conference level. Henry Pelling's judgement of the CPGB's incredulity in its support of Soviet oppression remains unanswered. The CPGB's commitment to such oppression overwhelmed its perception of reality. Soviet prisoners often thought that if Stalin knew about the Gulags he would put a stop to them, never realising he authored the policy. They can be excused by the oppressive nature of the Soviet state and the lack of a free press. The CPGB had no such excuses. They regarded themselves as an international spiritual elect and as such could never be judged by the insignificant society they inhabited and hated. Fidel Castro proclaimed, "History Will Absolve Me". History has condemned the CPGB.
It may be thought the above review would produce a negative rating but it's worth five for laying bear the intellectual dishonesty of communists in Britain. In addition it is well researched with an excellent bibliography. If at times the authors appear to believe they are looking at the meal instead of picking the last remnants of meat from the bone that is only because of their intellectual hunger. Whether such hunger is genuine or simply the pangs of addiction is for the reader to judge.
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