8 June 2021

The BBC should be ashamed of its whimsical portrayal of British communism


The BBC went through immense soul-searching 12 years ago when it invited Nick Griffin, then leader of the British National Party and an MEP, to appear on Question Time. I think its decision was defensible and the programme turned out to be a disaster for Griffin, who was attacked afterwards even by his own party colleagues. Yet it clearly acknowledged the moral dilemma of treating an extremist group as a normal part of the political process.

Times change. BBC Radio 4 broadcast at the weekend a programme titled School for Communists, billed as “a witty and surprising personal view of communism from Alexei Sayle, whose parents were communists and took him on holidays to the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War”. The ostensible peg for the programme was that it’s the centenary year of the Young Communist League, which the programme makers describe thus: “The Young Communist League [YCL] is a democratic organisation for people under 30, founded in 1921 as the youth wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain [CPGB].”

In the programme Sayle treats us to an affectionate view of his youthful activism, chews the cud with the children’s author Michael Rosen, who comes from a similar background, and interviews the current general-secretary of the YCL. What you won’t find is any accurate description of the YCL and the CPGB (which was wound up after the fall of the Soviet Union).

The notion that either was or is a democratic organisation is beyond ridiculous. They were established to advance the aims of the Bolshevik coup in Russia. I don’t just mean that they espoused similar ideals to those of Lenin and Stalin: I mean that they literally took orders from Lenin and Stalin. As the philosopher Sidney Hook, who broke with communism in the 1930s, later wrote of the US party, in terms that apply exactly to Britain too:

“The mass of the American intellectuals who followed the American Communist Party line soon made the startling discovery that there was no American Communist Party line; that the line in every field was laid down by the Kremlin, whose leaders relayed it to their subordinates in the United States…. The result was to transform a group of idealistic heretics into fanatical and, in time, cynical conspirators.”

The CPGB and its youth wing followed every twist and turn demanded by Moscow, including the preposterous notion in the early 1930s that social democracy was a form of fascism, and then defence at the end of the decade of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The CPGB’s programme titled ‘The British Road to Socialism’ in 1951 was all but dictated by Stalin in meetings and correspondence with Harry Pollitt, the party’s general-secretary.

The party’s defence of such abominations as the Moscow Trials and Stalin’s murderous assault on the peasantry in the 1930s, and the Prague coup and the crushing of other nascent east European democracies in the immediate postwar years, was not a mere strategic error born of a lack of critical perspective. That’s what organised communism was about and for: defending the Soviet Union, whatever it did. Not all individual communists were dedicated to that goal, but the party certainly was. And while it never came close to winning a widespread base of political support in Britain (its zenith was to return two MPs in the 1945 general election), it was highly influential in the trade union movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, thereby exerting influence in the Labour Party.

British communism was not purely a fifth column to covertly advance Soviet interests, but it did have an underground apparatus that was deeply engaged in espionage. The party’s chief ideologue for many years, James Klugmann – a fine linguist and officer in the wartime Special Operations Executive, who might have made a distinguished life in another field – helped recruit John Cairncross, “the fifth man”, as a Soviet spy. And he did this on the approval of Pollitt.

There is a long-standing debate on the responsibility of Marx for the repressive regimes that have, since 1917, invoked his name. What you cannot reasonably deny is that Lenin is an authentic variant of Marxism, and that his doctrines are inherently totalitarian. As he wrote in ‘The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government’ in 1918, “no essential contradiction can exist between the Soviet, that is, the socialist democracy, and the exercise of dictatorial power by a single person”. Stalinist despotism is what results, and British communism was its unfailing instrument and advocate. For years, Reuben Falber, assistant-general secretary of the CPGB, carried out sackloads of cash from the Soviet embassy in London to help finance the party’s activities.

There is interesting historical and sociological work to be done on why intelligent people fell prey to the delusion that communism amounted to the defence of progress. There are also valuable autobiographical accounts, such as Witness by Whittaker Chambers, the former KGB agent who exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. There are even informative accounts of what it was like to grow up in a communist family: my colleague David Aaronovitch has done this, and so has David Horowitz, now an inflammatory demagogue on the Trumpian right, but who at an earlier stage of his ideological journey wrote some interesting reflections on the seductive appeal of the far left. (A long out-of-print book called The Monument by Robert Barltrop is a fascinating account of growing up in another left-wing sect, which still exists, called the Socialist Party of Great Britain.)

What you cannot do, however – or at least not in good faith and with reliability – is whitewash the history of British communism. It is beyond obtuseness for the BBC to present as a whimsical indulgence an affiliation to a cause that not only embraced evil but did its every bidding.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.