The Radical Scotland Tradition and Stalinism’s Legacy
The Scotsman, March 2nd 2013
Next Tuesday a strange but important moment will be celebrated in a number of capitals and places in the world: the 60th anniversary of the death of Soviet leader and dictator Joseph Stalin.
Stalin’s death in 1953 was a cataclysmic event which sent ripples of uncertainty through the then monolithic Soviet bloc. First the Berlin workers came out in protest against Soviet rule, to be followed by the Hungarian and Polish springs of 1956. It resulted in Nikita Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin’s ‘cult of the personality’; and the slow unraveling of the system, which led to Gorbachev, 1989 and the end of Soviet Communism (and the Soviet Union itself).
The British Communist Party and domestic Stalinism was always a smaller, humbler force, but in both the UK and Scotland it had reach and influence well beyond its numbers.
The British party provided a cadre of activists, resources and organisation to the left, fought Mosley and the fascists in the 1930s, raised money for the Soviet war effort, and more. It produced a serious ideas journal, ‘Marxism Today’ which in the 1980s had enormous influence on Labour and the left, and ran numerous summer and residential schools.
The Scottish party nurtured an entire culture of working class leaders and activists: trade union figures such as Mick McGahey, Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, and was a potent force in the STUC, trade union movement, and Trades Councils.
The Communist Party was, it was oft said ‘in the Labour movement, but not the Labour Party’, and in Scotland, with a small sized Labour membership, the Communists had a disproportionate influence.
This was famously evident in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in of 1971-72, in its support for cross-party campaigns (long before Labour relented on such niceties), and in particular on home rule.
In the years of Labour anti-devolution running from the Attlee era to Labour’s about turn on the issue in 1974, it was Communists on the left who kept the home rule banner flying (and its only supporters along with the Liberals).
In 1968, it was Mick McGahey of the Scottish mineworkers union, who moved the motion at the STUC to commit Congress to support a Scottish Parliament which was remitted and agreed the following year, contributing to Labour eventually coming back to home rule.
This isn’t a eulogy for the Communist Party. The ideology of Marxist-Leninism was fatally flawed; democratic centralism was a euphemism for anti-democratic authoritarianism; and pro-Sovietism became a blind embrace of Russian imperialism.
I should know as my father, Eddie, was a member of the Communist Party in Dundee when he was a NCR shop steward in the 1970s, and the then Heath Government seemed to my parents (and many others) to be the most right-wing, uncaring Tory politics they could possibly imagine.
There was an instinctual Stalinism in the Scottish party and beyond which was more powerful than elsewhere in the UK. My father was a ‘tankie’, seeing Russian tanks in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979, as the solution to world socialism. ‘Why would workers want to strike in a workers state?’ my dad used to ask myself and my mum, not really looking for an answer.
And the appeal of Stalinism extended well beyond the confines of ‘the party’. There was ‘Afghan’ Ernie Ross in Dundee and Ron Brown in Edinburgh Leith; part of this was borne by a belief working class solidarity bred international solidarity with the Soviet state.
The Communist Party abolished itself in 1991, and became Democratic Left, a short-lived ‘new politics network’, before south of the border morphing again into a soft set of alliances. In Scotland, Democratic Left remains, shrunken, a bit humbled, but a small force trying to do some good through drawing together red, green and feminist ideas.
A Scottish politics without the contribution of a Communist Party shows the significant contribution they made. Without their presence, in the vacuum came Tommy Sheridan and his caricature of revolutionary politics which blew up in his and his party’s face. And without them, Labour and the trade union movement have missed the extra dimension of another perspective on left and radical ideas.
Soviet Communism was one of the disasters of the 20th century, as was Marxism-Leninism, and the idea of the vanguard party. There can be no nostalgia for a system which killed millions, suppressed many more, and contorted political reality to suit itself: being against fascism, but calling social democrats ‘social fascists’, and supported the war effort against the Nazis, but before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, dismissing the conflict as a ‘bourgeois war’.
Yet a world without powerful Communist Parties has become one where the last dogmatic revolutionaries are those of the free market, where the ultimate utopia is reducing everyone to one-dimensional human beings at the narrow level of economic calculus.
Part of the post-war compact across the West was business and upper class fear of the Communist menace, and with it gone, the forces of power, wealth and privilege have gone on to tear up much of what millions thought precious and permanent. Something any good old-fashioned Marxist would have predicted.
Scotland’s centre-left politics are less rich for the absence of the ideas, energy, critical thinking and people of the Communist Party. Instead, our political terrain is reduced to a contest between Labour and SNP, two catch-all parties of the near-left, which are not motivated by the contest of ideas.
The Scottish Communists would have demanded a more idealistic, radical and humanitarian content on independence than that before us. And done something about it. They would have produced pamphlets, organised debates, put together ecumenical conferences drawing politics, culture, ideas and more, and got large numbers of people to them.
This is a challenge to those on the left in the next 18 months – to the Radical Independence Conference, Compass, Jimmy Reid Foundation, Scottish Greens and others.
They have to take the best from this philosophy of activism, practice and idealism, while leaving behind the evasions, arrogance and elitism. And use it to educate, agitate and organise, and dream and demand of others, a different and better future and present currently on offer. Their resources may be less than the Scottish Communists at their peak, but they have a once in a generation historic opportunity to produce radical ideas and politics which could have an impact on the way Scotland votes and thinks in 2014 and after.