Sunday, 22 May 2011

Gordon McLennan

Gordon McLennan (1924-2011)

Gordon McLennan, a past General Secretary of the Communist Party, died on 21 May at the St Christopher's Hospice, after a long battle with cancer.

Gordon was born in Glasgow on 12th May 1924. Having joined the Young Communist League at the age of 15, McLennan served on the YCL Executive Committee from 1942-1947.

He worked as an engineering draughtsman but became a full time worker for the Party in Scotland, first as Glasgow City Organiser, then Glasgow City Secretary, then Scottish District Organiser and, in 1956, the Scottish Secretary. Having joined the National Executive of the Party in 1957, he became National Organiser in 1966 and General Secretary in 1975, succeeding John Gollan. He remained in post until 1989.
He contested numerous constituency seats: the Glasgow Govan constituency in the general election 1959, West Lothian in a 1962 by-election, Govan in the 1964 and 1966 general elections, St Pancras North in the 1970 and February 1974 general elections.
In his role as National Organiser, he became responsible for the Young Communist League, which he steered to make major changes in the 1960s and early 1970s in a revisionist direction. In the 1980s, he played a decisive role in creating circumstances where a major division of the Communist Party ensued. Enormous numbers of committed activists left or were excluded or expelled and some re-established the Communist Party in 1988, leaving the increasingly fragmented shell to continue for some four years.

Latterly, Gordon was a prominent activist in the Lambeth pensioners’ movement and was active in the Stop the War Coalition. In 1992, he joined the Communist Party of Scotland. He was a supporter of Respect led by George Galloway in the 2005 general election.


  1. I knew Gordon both as a colleague at St John Street, when I worked there as one of the CPGB's archivists in the latter half of the 1980s, and as a fellow member of the Brixton CPGB branch. He had many good qualities, not least his transparent honesty and commitment to the cause. Gordon used to pull his weight in the branch, taking his turn at paper sales and routine activity. As that branch was also a rather free-thinking branch, Gordon had to argue for the party line against all sorts of sceptics, which he did without pulling rank.

    The notice posted above is derived to a considerable extent from the website of Graham Stevenson, a leading member of the CPB, which means that he has a certain axe to grind, as can be seen in his use of that ridiculous CPB euphemism for their split in 1988: "re-establishment". It would be more accurate to say that the divisions within the CPGB, which had existed since at least 1968, and largely centred on whether it was ever acceptable to criticise the CPSU ("revisionism", in the jargon of the CPSU-sycophants), could not be overcome, despite Gordon's best efforts in the first 8 years of his general secretaryship. To be sure, the task of keeping the CPGB together proved too big for Gordon. I rather suspect it would have been too big for anyone.

  2. While I was not even born in 1988 so I cannot pretend to know anything much about the reality, It is my understanding that most of those who re-established the communist party had already been expelled for-as far as I can see-being communists.

    Those who remained dedicated to Marxist-Leninism, who were very active trade unionists were thrown out of the communist party by people who has since admitted they are not communists.

    Whether at the time you might have thought it was a 'split' or not seems to have been proven wrong by events since. The CPB has kept the morning star going, is active in the labour movement. Would we even have a communist party and the morning star in this country if it had not been for the re-establishment of the party back then?

  3. Not quite, Emma. Only a few dozen at most were actually expelled from the CPGB, almost all between 1984 and 1986, and a few dozen more did not re-register as CPGB members after the centre had dissolved their branches and invited the members to re-register. The bulk of those who formed the CPB in 1988 left the CPGB en masse to do so. Expellees were prominent among the CPB's leaders, but only comprised a small part of the membership. A significant portion of the CPB's current membership did not go along with the split (for that is surely what it was, if words mean anything at all), remained in the CPGB up to 1991, and joined the CPB thereafter. I can't help thinking that if the Communist Campaign Group had been less hasty, and had worked together with the other groupings in the CPGB that wanted the party to continue, there would possibly be a larger CP in Britain today, with all the assets of the old CPGB which have been squandered by its successor organisations. Quite possibly, by splitting off, they handed the "Democratic Left" faction a majority that it would not otherwise have managed to get. Of course, we can't re-run history, so we'll never know.

  4. Thanks for clearing that up a bit Francis. Although it seems like it was a very messy period, who knows what would have happened. Perhaps we might have had a bigger communist party now-I certainly wish it was the case!

    However, for younger people like myself all this is stuff that happened before we were born. The fact is that now there is only one body that exists to attempt fill the gap left by the end of the old party is the CPB.

    Back back on topic. It is sad to see a great former communist pass away. My thoughts are with his family.


    Obituary by Rob Griffiths in the Morning Star

  6. “I can't help thinking that if the Communist Campaign Group had been less hasty, and had worked together with the other groupings in the CPGB that wanted the party to continue, there would possibly be a larger CP in Britain today, with all the assets of the old CPGB which have been squandered by its successor organisations. Quite possibly, by splitting off, they handed the "Democratic Left" faction a majority that it would not otherwise have managed to get. Of course, we can't re-run history, so we'll never know.”

    Francis is probably right although possibly the battle to protect the Morning Star could not have been won if the struggle had been conducted exclusively within the straitjacket imposed by the peculiarly dictatorial application of the party rules favoured by the ‘euros’. On the other hand the Rosser tendency was just as accomplished in mislaying assets as were the beneficiaries of the CPGB.

    Francis is wrong in suggesting that ‘loyalty’ to the Soviet Union was the central issue in inner party struggle. The character of the ‘British Road to Socialism’ was more important – at least up to the CCG split, at which point a big chunk of the anti BRS opposition put this question on the back burner. The direction of the YCL and student work were important questions and at a later stage characterizations of the labour movement came to the fore

    Gordon was at his strongest as an organizer, orator and agitator. He contested St Pancras in the mid 60s and I was asked to work on the election propaganda and design. It was good fun (and a real education) working with him in street meetings. I remember one occasion when the Labour candidate, a good AEU bloke called Jock Stallard – whose selection Gordon had been involved in – did a rather lack lustre street meeting, Gordon then mounted the platform and roused the market crowd to such a pitch of anti-Tory fury that they drove the Tories leafleters away.

    I don’t think he was at all comfortable with the configaration of forces within the party but did not see clearly enough the danger represented by the deep schisms that were appearing. He was highly critical of Mike Hick’s chairing of the ‘breakaway’ London District congress and this led him into a reckless confrontation that inevitably led to a walkout.

    He was overly impressed by the group around Marxism Today and overestimated their loyalty to the party (and to himself). In fact some of them were openly contemptuous of him and what he represented.

    He did try to keep some back-channels open to the opposition that remained in the party. I greatly appreciated Gordon’s advice in the period when the more gung-ho disciplinarians of the mis-named ‘revolutionary democratic’ tendency were trying to provoke behaviour that would lead to expulsion.

    Nick Wright

  7. David Mcloughlin4 June 2011 at 01:18

    I think one thing that should be stated quite firmly is the that there were no mass expulsions in the YCL (personal knowledge). The truth is that a faction of the 'hardliners' were using the YCL as a battleground when they couldn't win in the CPGB. The degree of syscophancy of the YCL 'hardliners' was astonishing, for example attending receptions at the Czechoslovak Embassy while the Husak regime was cracking down on dissidents. The proper thing to have done was for the CPGB to have directed the people who were opposing the line of the CPGB majority in the YCL to work elsewhere.
    Gordon was a lovely, kind man with a great sense of humour. His funeral service yesterday was packed out and ended with Louis Armstrong's @wonderful world'

  8. Steve Radford writes:

    I've just noticed this discussion while looking up comments on Gordon's career as I draft a short obituary for Green Socialist magazine. I'm not going to go over what is to some people (like Emma) ancient history - though it doesn't seem so long ago to me. However, for the record, I agree, more or less, with Francis King's recollection of events. There was a splt which began in 1984 (although it's roots went way back)and culminated in the 1988 walk-out by comrades who chose to leave the party and establish another one.

    One falshood which has to be nailed howevedr, is that the split included all the comrades who were active in the party's industrial work. This is simply untrue. The closing down of the London District Congress in 1984 (to which I was a delegate) was done by Gordon McLennan and fellow Executive Committee member Mick McGahey - and I was not the only trade unionist activist who followeed them out.

    Sadly, it is true that a number of comrades in the trade unions then launched a campaign to isolate and exclude comrades who had stayed loyal to the party. This included the deliberate sabotage of party industrial work and other initiatives which had nothing to do with the party split in a petty attempt to denigrate comrades who stuck with the party, or to coerce them to toe the opposition line.

    To quote George Anthony's words, spoken to me in 1985, ".. if you would just see sense and come over to us Steve then all these problems would go away".

    I was never a Eurocommunist, I argued and voted against the new draft BRS in 1977 and I sided with the bulk of London industrial comrades on most issues, until some of them started to organise to undermine the party itself.

    Finally, another falsehood that must be corrected is the claim that the current CPB is some kind of continuation of the old CPGB. It is not. They split from the party years before the dissolution (and I agree with Francies that they probably helped this come about) and they had already set up a rival party. The only politically active organistion with any kind of continuous line of succession to the CPGB that I am aware of is the Alliance for Green Socialism - which may not be a disciplined Marxist Leninist Party but is committed to socialist change and to working in co-operation with all those who share its basic socialist and environmentalist principles.

    I don't wish to denigrate the CPB - not even my former comrades who turned on me back in 1984/5 - but let's forget the old labels and terms of sectarian abuse (or at least save them for those who really deserve abusing). Gordon McLennan was a principled and generous man trying to do a job which was probably impossible. He was not helped in his task by supposed comrades whose loyalties lay in obsequious obeisance to the USSR or to perpetuating some pretty unsavoury (and in some cases downright corrupt) practices in the Trade Union Movement - but that's all history now.....

  9. I was sorry to hear of Gordon`s death.It has brought back memories. As a rank and file YCL and CPGB activist in the 1980`s, I met Gordon many times and his humanity was always a given. Sadly this could not be said for others opposing him who used ideology in my view spuriously to prop up their personal senses of self-worth and resulting political isolationism that persists to this very day. Although I was seen (of course by the fundamentalists !) to be on the extreme "Eurocommunist" wing of the Party,(an unsatisfactory shorthand term for my and many other`s more complex opinions), Gordon rightly sought a compromise between the two broad strands of thought; however the conflict was given a fatal structural aspect by the Morning Star /MT polarities and I agree that no-one could have avoided a split. I remain convinced that a "Communist" Party does not exist in Britain now and am pleased to add that I never thought of joining "New" Labour afterwards (who have set the cause of socialism back another 30 years-but that`s another story ! )

  10. Anonymous (Steve Radford) said...

    “let's forget the old labels and terms of sectarian abuse…”

    However he also when on to talk about “supposed comrades whose loyalties lay in obsequious obeisance to the USSR”.

    Francis King and David Mcloughlin characterise at least some of those supporting the Soviet Union as ‘sycophants’

    Let’s be clear about what is being said here.

    ‘Obsequiousness’ is excessive eagerness to please with the suggestion that this is done to curry favour.

    ‘Sycophancy’ is flattery used as a means to secure advancement from people of influence.

    This is not about the arguments presented: it is a direct attack on the personal motives of those opposing Gordon McLennan.

    This is ticklish point because it seems to put Gordon McLennan’s defenders in the position of using the same approach that they are objecting to. I don’t want to make anything of this because personal motivations, while notoriously difficult to judge, are relevant to our understanding of historical events.

    The key issue is: is it true? Were those opposed to Eurocommunism and Gordon McLennan really opportunists whose intention was to win favour with the CPSU?

    I think the evidence for this is rather thin.
    Two points:
    a) The Soviets had very little to offer and what they did provide went more to the mainstream leadership than the ‘opposition’. They didn’t fund the NCP and there is no evidence that the Soviets encouraged a split.

    b) How does one explain the behaviour of the opposition after the collapse of the Soviet Union? If the opposition were insincere in their flattery then one would expect them to stop once the possibility of a pay-off had disappeared. This does not seem to have happened. In fact, it seems as if support for the Soviet Union has strengthened since 1991, especially in the last few years. In contrast, many Eurocommunists have ended up in some very odd places.

  11. OK Doug, touché. I don't want to appear to allege personal dishonesty or corruption - that wasn't my point at all, and I don't for one minute imagine the people involved were at all insincere in their beliefs about the USSR. I just think they were thoroughly deluded. So please scratch "sycophants" and substitute "devotees".

  12. Steve Radford writes:

    Like Francis I don't want to disparage all those who took a pro-Soviet view (which I broadly subscribed to for many years, although unlike some I did voice criticism where I thought it justified). Perhaps I was being brief to avoid running to too many words. However, having said that, "obsequious obeisance" does seem the appropriate term to use for the attitudes shown by some comrades and I do not withdraw it.

    As for the USSR and the Socialist Bloc's attitude towards the NCP..... Well this was mixed. It is true that the USSR did not (as far as I know) fund the NCP but I suspect they were helpful in various ways (as Sid French had told me he hoped they would be). I also wonder what the realistic commercial price of that big Czech "Dominant" (offset printing press) the NCP acquired in 1982 to produce the New Worker was.....?