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:
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 is....an 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.'
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
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