Monday, 29 October 2012

Once more on Bert Ramelson, CND, the CPGB etc

 Peter Waterman responds to Tom Sibley on Bert Ramelson, the CND, the CPGB, etc.

Tom Sibley may well be right on the shortcomings of my memory concerning the CPGB, the Daily Worker, World News and the CND. Resident outside the UK since 1970, I do not have his access to the archives. And I would appreciate any more detailed evidence that would help me correct the account in my draft autobio.

Tom, however, protests too much. The CP had its own front organisation for peace (as for almost everything), the British Peace Committee, of which the General Secretary was, as mentioned, Colin Sweet, a leading Communist. Tom suggests enthusiastic CP support for Aldermaston, though I recall no CP banners on the marches I took part in. Nor do these appear in my possibly selective photos - though these do record a banner from another Soviet Communist front, the International Union of Students (for which I had worked, 1955-8). Nor does Tom take issue with my account of the London CP meet on the 'peace question', at which, as I argued, the CP eventually switched its energies from the BPC to the CND.

This kind of adjustment to (or collapse in the face of) unpredicted realities was typical of the CP during my affiliation with it (1951-68). For me this is not a question of virtue or vice. It is one, rather, of the CP's increasing irrelevance to a Britain that could no longer be captured by its categories. And to social movements that could neither be led nor captured by its activists. As in the case of the Youth CND, the CP activists simply jumped the King Street gun. The CND was, looking back on it, the first of what came to be called the 'new social movements', having its origins outside not only Communism but the labour movement more generally.

Tom denies my suggestion that the CP was labourist rather than socialist, arguing, rather that it was 'revolutionary', and that Bert Ramelson had insisted that militant unionism had to be 'transformed into real social change leading to Socialism'. However, this combination of militant particularism with global aspiration - which one can find also in traditional Communist (plus Maoist and many Trotskyist) parties till the present day - reduced and reduces the latter to a glowing, if ever retreating horizon. For a dire present example, consider the South African Communist Party.

The problem is nicely expressed in a Soviet (though evidently not pro-Soviet) joke:

After a Party officer has lectured a collective farm audience to the effect that Communism was on the horizon, a peasant told the speaker that he understood about Communism but didn't understand the meaning of horizon. The speaker replies: the horizon is an imaginary line between the earth and heavens that retreats as one advances toward it.

Likewise, repetition of the word 'revolution' does not make the CPGB of the post-WW2 period revolutionary. And Bert's commuting to the offices of the Prague-based World Marxist Review, seems in fundamental contradiction with Tom's insistence on CP support to the Prague Spring and to Charter 77. Once again we have a combination of attachment to Soviet Communist structures and practices with pragmatic adjustment to social movement realities.

Rather than resurrecting Bert Ramelson as an icon of revolutionary rectitude, I feel that one would do historical Communists/isms more justice in writing of them in the tragic mode. And then in the Aristotelian sense that

'Tragedy enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of [a certain] magnitude, by means of language enriched [with ornaments], each used separately in the different parts [of the play]: it is enacted, not [merely] recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such [and similar] emotions. Poetics, VI 1449b 2-3.'

Do we need more Communist Parties and Bert Ramelsons? Or do we need, first, catharsis, and then (in less dramatic mode)  to learn from their limitations, develop new notions of human social emancipation, and of the kind of human personality and inter-personal relations necessary to such?

Peter Waterman
The Hague, 27 October, 2012

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