Phil Piratin review: Tragic consequences

Lawrence Parker reviews: Kevin Marsh and Robert Griffiths, 'Granite and honey: the story of Phil Piratin, communist MP', Manifesto Press, 2012, pp256, £14.95

Cable Street: myths

This is an excellent biography of Phil Piratin and I have no hesitation in recommending it to Weekly Worker readers. Following the appearance in 2012 of Seifert and Sibley’s biography of CPGB industrial leader Bert Ramelson, productions such as this represent a serious upping of its game from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain in relation to its work in the archives. There has clearly been an attempt to portray Piratin ‘warts and all’, and the book is very well researched and documented: in no sense is this hagiography.

Also, there is a genuine attempt to deal with controversial issues, such as the CPGB’s involvement in the Battle of Cable Street (1936). The London district committee had originally attempted to yank its comrades away from facing down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in favour of attending a youth rally for Spain in Trafalgar Square. The district leadership backed down after receiving a deputation of its Stepney comrades (pp16-17) and what I guess would have been a growing realisation that large sections of the CPGB’s membership were determined to oppose Mosley, whatever the ‘line’ might have been. However, despite the fact that I think Marsh and Griffiths offer a decent account to anyone interested, there is actually very little to be gained from debating these issues any more. This is partly because both sides (pro- and anti-CPGB) have mythologised their accounts of Cable Street to such a pitch that rational argument on this topic becomes almost impossible. At least this Granite and honey offers a partial route out of this nonsense.

Accolades aside, the empirical strength of this work is also perhaps the cause of its key methodological weakness. The analytical framework appears to be relatively thin and, in general, the authors eschew using Piratin as the vehicle for broader interpretations of the CPGB’s history. This has the advantage of removing the rather tiresome evangelical tone that Siefert and Sibley used in relation to Bert Ramelson; but it does make for a rather dry text in places. In particular, it is apparent that Marsh and Griffiths cannot conceive of any alternative path for Piratin than the one he was actually stuck on (leading the anti-fascist struggle in Stepney; involved in community work; becoming a councillor, then MP; opposing the cold war; losing his seat in parliament; experiencing the crisis of 1956; withdrawing from the CPGB’s public work), given that the ‘official’ CPGB is very much an ‘ideal type’ for this particular trend. Paradoxically then, the relative disappearance of more tendentious interpretations and the subsequent organising power they can exert on empirical work and future debates (even if, as in most cases, they are flawed interpretations) means, I suspect, that we do not understand quite so much about Piratin from this work as we might have done.

The interpretative framework, such as it is, seems to be a bluntly instrumental one of seeking to inspire today’s CPB activists to emulate the achievements of Phil Piratin. Kevin Marsh, in his preface, talks about reading Piratin’s Our flag stays red (the famous account of CPGB activity in the 1930s and 1940s): “What struck me all those years ago, and still does whenever I reread that account, is the lengths to which Piratin and others like him went as champions for the oppressed” (pvii). Becoming a ‘champion of the oppressed’ is a fine aspiration, but Our flag stays red, written in 1948 to inspire Communist Party activists, as the cold war began to blow away its gains in local politics, was spectacularly unsuccessful in its outcome. Determined attention to community activism, anti-fascism, trade unionism and the like was not enough to offset the awkward questions that people were beginning to ask about the CPGB’s attachment to unpopular dictatorships in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

To quote an earlier appreciation of Piratin by John Callow, “... Piratin suddenly found himself politically isolated. He was no longer seen as the promoter of a popular front of all humanity against fascism, the patriotic raiser of funds for the war effort, the sturdy ARP warden who had braved the blitz; now he became an apologist for a rapacious and hostile foreign power.”1 This is a salient lesson for today’s left, which often seeks to counterpose a localised and marginal activism to ‘big’ issues of strategy and theory (subconsciously, it perceives it has lost them).

Talking of Callow, the director of archives at the Marx Memorial Library who provided an excellent and thought-provoking introduction to a 2006 re-issue of Our flag stays red (quoted above), his foreword to this book offers some peculiar formulations. For example, in regards to The British road to socialism, Callow writes: “The programme offered a highly flexible, practical and inspirational approach towards - and blueprint for - the building of the broadest base of progressive alliances, and for harnessing their power in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action” (pi). Really?

The BRS was simply imposed on the CPGB by its leadership in 1951, after Pollitt had taken the advice of Stalin in Moscow. Pollitt voiced his own doubts about how inspiring or otherwise the programme had been for his activists.2 In relation to the party’s 22nd congress in April 1952, in which the rank and file was given the fantastic opportunity of rubber-stamping a programme adopted a year before, leadership figures quickly twigged that this had led to an absence of debate. As this book argues, “Piratin was re-elected to the EC, where - echoing Harry Pollitt - he expressed his disappointment that the party branches had not taken responsibility for formulating party policy at the congress. Rather, they regarded that as the province of the leadership, while their duty was to carry out the line decided by those competent to determine what it should be” (p170). All of which suggests that the branches had a pretty realistic sense of how their party operated in this period.

The BRS was spectacularly unsuccessful in providing a basis for the CPGB’s growth and vibrancy, let alone its unity. The left of the party was never keen on the programme and its earlier versions were tolerated at best. In debating a 1977 draft of the BRS, Charlie Doyle summed up the thoughts of many of those who unfortunately ended up in the forerunners of today’s CPB: “To attempt, as we do, in this and previous editions of the British road to predetermine and predict the course of objective change to suit subjective wishes is to make a mockery of revolutionary theory and transform it into a lifeless, pedantic exercise, or at best a pessimism which leads us to embrace bourgeois democratic forms as the only instruments for change and parliament as the executive institution for shaping the new socialist society.”3 One suspects that Callow’s latter-day enthusiasm for the BRS speaks more about the Marx Memorial Library’s current rapprochement with the Morning Star’s CPB and little else.

Over recent years (particularly in relation to George Galloway and Respect) we have been solemnly informed by wise sages in organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party that it is apparently unacceptable to expect parliamentary representatives to accept the wage of an average skilled worker or to answer to their organisations in regard to interventions in parliament. Piratin, who won the Mile End seat for the CPGB in the July 1945 election, offers a much more principled example. Piratin gave his parliamentary salary to the party and, in return, received an allowance equivalent to that of an average skilled worker (pp111-12). Further to that, Piratin and fellow CPGB MP Willie Gallacher (West Fife) were subject to the control and inspection of the party.

For example, Peter Zinkin and Malcolm MacEwen in the CPGB’s parliamentary and local government department were critical of Piratin’s first 12 months in parliament in a memorandum to the party’s leadership (pp89-90). Piratin and Gallacher were criticised for not working together more closely and the authors identified a lack of coordination between the MPs and the CPGB’s campaigns outside parliament. Piratin was also criticised for his performance on the floor of the House of Commons.

A more detailed critique of the MPs’ work was prepared by Jack Gaster for the CPGB executive committee’s organisation department (pp90-92). This led to a series of recommendations to remedy perceived defects. There is no sense here of a culture where the MPs were thought of as ‘freelancers’ and allowed to do whatever took their fancy (although it appears as though the behaviour and actions of Gallacher were particularly exasperating to some of his party colleagues). Piratin and Gallacher were deemed to be representatives of their party and of their class. It strikes one from reading this account that this is a much more healthy culture (warped though the CPGB was in this period) than anything we have seen recently in relation to organisations such as Respect.

The final sections of this book make for sad reading and it is here that the methodological weaknesses of this account really come home to roost. Piratin lost his seat in the 1950 general election (a victim of changes in his constituency and the onset of the cold war), becoming district secretary of West Middlesex CPGB before taking up the post of circulation manager of the Daily Worker in 1954. Although Marsh and Griffiths attempt to suggest it was Piratin’s largely unhappy time at the CPGB’s newspaper that led him to withdraw from public political life into various business enterprises (p191), it was clear that the events of 1956 (Khrushchev’s speech; Soviet repression in Hungary) had left Piratin politically adrift and looking for an escape route.

Although he did not think of joining the many thousands who left the CPGB in this period, he was, according to Marsh and Griffiths, “for a short time at least ... disorientated” (p190). Given that Piratin, in this book’s reading, drifted away from the CPGB after 1957, such a judgement is questionable at best. But then this is the real issue for the likes of Marsh and Griffiths: they cannot conceive of any alternative to what actually happened to Piratin and people like him in 1956. Piratin was internally critical of CPGB figures such Palme Dutt (who finally started paying an internal political price for years of odious toadying towards Stalin and the Soviet Union), expressed reservations over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary and argued for relative clemency to be shown towards dissidents. But, ultimately, Piratin started mouthing the platitudes of ‘unity’ emanating from the party leadership. These were apparently the circumstances that led to his phased withdrawal from the CPGB.

These are the cold and empty ‘facts’ that Marsh and Griffiths are left with, given that one suspects people of their ilk would have behaved in exactly the same manner if they had been around in 1956: maybe they would have had an internal moan or reservation here or there; but never in front of their class. So the solution is either to prostitute yourselves for this or that bastion of ‘socialism’; or slink away into the night (which is at least forgivable if you keep your mouth mostly shut in the process, as Piratin undoubtedly did).

What Marsh and Griffiths cannot conceive of is that there was an alternative to this, and that alternative was not an impossible one to achieve. Of course, a section of the CPGB in 1956 was drawn towards Trotskyism, which is pretty understandable, given that it was the most coherent left alternative to Stalinism. Unfortunately, the majority of these comrades took the profoundly useless course of linking up with Gerry Healy (from slurry pit to incinerator in one mighty, ‘dialectical’ leap). But there were other examples. Mathematician Hyman Levy, appalled by the anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union that had come to light, started his own researches into what had gone wrong, coming to the conclusion that what we now call ‘Stalinism’ was the result of a ‘gangsterism’ rooted in the country’s socio-economic heritage.

In other words, it was possible to think in such conditions and perceive alternatives. It is because Marsh and Griffiths do not want to think in this manner (through choice and not compulsion, it must be added) that I suspect they are incapable of truly perceiving what a tragedy the career of Phil Piratin ultimately was.

Notes

1. John Callow, ‘Introduction’ in P Piratin Our flag stays red London 2006, pxviii.

2. See L Parker The kick inside: revolutionary opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 London 2012, pp35­-36.

3. C Doyle A critique of the draft British Road to Socialism: revolutionary path - or diversion? London 1977, p16.

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