I visited E.P. and Dorothy Thompson at their home in Worcestershire in December 1991 to record their memories of their years in the Communist Party for a radio series I was making about the international Communist movement - the audio of the series is available here. The original audio cassettes are part of a personal archive now deposited at the National Sound Archive. The audio of both interviews is posted on the page below - with permission - along with a transcript of the interview with Edward Thompson. I will also transcribe the interview with Dorothy Thompson in due course.
Edward and Dorothy's daughter Kate has set up a wonderful website about her parents with much more information and a bibliography: www.edwardanddorothythompson.com
Edward Palmer Thompson
interviewed by Andrew Whitehead in Worcestershire, 1 December 1991 – 43 minutes
covers joining the CP because of its anti-fascist activity in 1942; emotional commitment to the party, and activity including by-elections – “We may be losing in South Croydon, but we’re winning in China”; Yorkshire District Committee and party member in Halifax - ‘these people did represent authentic British working class traditions’; ‘The Reasoner’ and the party upheavals of 1956. ‘One still has never found again a group of people bound together by common, deeply-held convictions – except that they were wrong convictions’. And feeling of ‘fury’ against international Communist leadership and the British party’s complicity.
Edward Palmer Thompson (1924-1993) was a member of the CPGB from 1942 to 1956, when he was co-editor of ‘The Reasoner’. He was a historian of international renown and a peace campaigner. He was married to Dorothy Thompson.
CLICK ABOVE TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW WITH E.P. THOMPSON - AND THERE'S A TRANSCRIPT BELOW
EDWARD PALMER THOMPSON talking to Andrew Whitehead about his recollections of the Communist Party, Worcestershire, 1st December 1991
AW: You joined the Communist Party in 1942 as a student?
EPT: Correct, yeah.
EPT: Well, this was I think largely because it was the political force most identified with a principled anti-fascism. I mean, its members had volunteered for the Spanish civil war, these were people of my older brother’s generation. I knew some of them. And I was impressed very much with the clarity and determination of their anti-fascist position - much more clear than anything else to be found. It was also, I think, a period in which a great deal of popular support was flowing the Communist Party’s way. It was its period of maximum recruitment. And it was quite enjoyable to be part of such a tide.
AW: How aware were you in ’42 of the twists and turns the party had been through over the previous three years about ‘Imperialist war’ or ‘people’s war against fascism’?
Yeah, I’d been aware of that and this had held me back for a long time. It seemed to me it had vomited that up and got over it. I was very clearly aware of it, and had had much perplexity and much resistance because of that, yes. My brother got caught in that because he volunteered immediately the war broke out, and about two or three weeks later he found that he had politically supposed to have done the wrong thing. (Chuckle).
AW: So what did he do then when the line changed to imperialist war when he had already volunteered?
I think, you see, like most people in the army, one lost any formal connection with the Communist Party. You might still have the same ideas and you might see the ‘Daily Worker’ occasionally, and argue in your own circle in the army and in discussion groups and so on. So I think my brother probably didn’t change his mind that this was an anti-fascist war, and carried on without much sense of guilt. But he didn’t have much contact with the party.
AW: And when you joined in ’42 in Cambridge –
AW: - was there a class orientation evident among Communists in the university?
Not that I noticed particularly. It was quite large, but not as large as it had been the previous year, I believe. I think it was about 200 members strong in the university. I think it had been up to 400 or more in the year or two before. No, one didn’t particularly notice. I think possibly, yeah, there was, there were the knobs, the knobs and slobs, that one didn’t associate with very much. You didn’t find them in the party, though. But this was usually people, I think, from, quite often from grammar schools and from lower middle class or occasionally working class backgrounds. One of my closest friends was a railwayman’s son.
AW: And in what did party activity at that time consist of? Were you obliged to sell the ‘Daily Worker’? Was there that street activity? Or was it a discussion group?
Well, I sold the ‘Daily Worker’ more when I went home for the vacations. It was quite interesting being a member of one’s local branch and I remember cycling all around and feeling each time you managed to sell a ‘Daily Worker’ to a, a contact that something tremendous had been done for the cause, you know. I was very naïve and young. In the university itself, I can’t remember large, organised ‘Daily Worker’ sales. I think one was more, I was much more active in the Socialist Society, which was a sort of popular front Socialist Society, and remained so when I came back after the war. I think I was once elected president or chairman or something of that, but I think that was in the long vacation and I was called up before I ever had to serve, yeah.
AW: When you were on service did Communist Party membership mean anything at all? Was it simply something that was kept in abeyance until you were demobbed?
Depended on how religious or fervent one was about it. I, it meant something to me, but I don’t think to a lot of others. I remember at Sandhurst being absolutely delighted because, you know, they have a belt of honour for each group of recruits, and Bill Alexander, who had served in the Spanish civil war in the International Brigade, he went up the steps and got the belt of honour that time, and I was terribly pleased. And we did have a very small discussion group that functioned occasionally. This was all very informal and, sort of, the pictures of the Communist Party having cells and being highly organised and efficient bodies – absolutely not true.
AW: Were you back in time for the ’45 election?
Yeah, I came back on compassionate leave and I did go round and did one or two, did a little bit of speaking and quite a lot of canvassing. Yes.
AW: Whereabouts was that?
That was in Buckinghamshire. That was in the High Wykeham constituency.
AW: In electoral terms, ’45 was the high point –
AW: Was there any sense of excitement or expectation within the party about what it was going to achieve in ‘45?
Yeah, I think we expected that Harry Pollitt would win in Rhondda and two or three other candidates would. You know, we were disappointed that only two people got elected. We expected six or seven, I think. Yes, yeah. And of course the tone of much of the Labour campaign was pretty radical and the tone of the electorate was pretty radical too, the response was pretty radical. I mean, I went round talking about the European resistance movements. And this was in a rural constituency. And people were very enthusiastic and supportive about it. The only comparable period of, sort of, internationalist political excitement I can think of was the peace movement in round about 1980 or 1982.
AW: This was the party of Pollitt and I imagine you saw a fair bit of Pollitt or at least heard him speak and got to know him to some level. What manner of man?
I wouldn’t have said I got to know him. I heard him speak several times. He always, always spoke, in Cambridge I think, on the Indian independence big meeting, when Krishna Menon would be on the platform. It would be a cross-party platform. And he always spoke at this. And he spoke well. He was, he was a bully. Even in his speaking he was a bit of a bully, I mean he would put down any questioner who was hostile very sharply indeed even, you know, he would sometimes mistake a question as being hostile when it wasn’t.
AW: Talking to Mick Mindel who was very active in the tailoring trade union in the East End, he gives the impression of Pollitt as a hero figure, someone who was almost revered among the party membership. You’re giving a rather different impression, that he was a slightly authoritarian figure who was feared rather than admired.
Well, I think one always knew that he was a bit of a bully. In fact, you only had to read his Serving my Time, his autobiography, to know that, because he glories in the fact that when dilutees were introduced in his factory he dropped heavy spanners on their feet and things like that, you know. He was the macho working classes, very much. We didn’t have the word ‘macho’ then, but you only have to look at Pollitt to see he is the macho type. And I don’t think, I don’t think I ever made, idolised him, but I was impressed by him and I also was at that time impressed by the political style of the Communist Party speaker, that it was very much more political, although we now realised that a lot of politics was quite bogus, but it was very much more political in character than you got from any other party.
AW: What about Palme Dutt?
I never liked him. I liked his India Today because that was an area that I knew something about, and I used to speak about to student groups. But his ‘Notes of the Month’ which was supposed to provide monthly guidance in ‘Labour Monthly’ to the readers - very quickly tired of. Now I might be being a little but, what’s the word - ex post facto. I think that by, by the mid-‘50s, the groups of people that we were associated with moaned and groaned when we heard about the ‘Notes of the Month’. But probably in the ‘40s I didn’t feel that way.
AW: How intense, how disciplined, was party activity when you got back in to party life at the end of the war?
I never thought of the party as being heavily disciplined. I thought of it as being centralised. Well, this is again – came to think of it as being centralised and bureaucratic in its decision making process. But not very effectively disciplined, as it were, in its outreach. After the war, as I say, I was quite active in the Socialist Society and we were extremely critical –I say we, I mean Dorothy and I and our group of friends – of the attempts, sometimes quite blatant, of the party in Cambridge to manipulate, and to use the sense of popular front in bad faith. It was possible to put up an opposition to this. I mean, in a sense we won that battle I think. We won it to the point we got people elected who were non-Communists in influential positions - sometimes turned out to be pretty useless.
AW: We’re going through the stage now where the initial enthusiasm which swept so many people into the party was waning. ’45, a disappointment, in electoral terms. In membership terms, the party’s performance was tailing off. What effect did that have on morale?
Oh, I think it had some effect but, you know, the truly sort of dedicated, almost religious, convert can always find some reason for hope. I remember a by-election was fought in, where was it? –
(Dorothy Thompson: Croydon, South Croydon … -)
‘We may be winning in South Croydon –‘. ‘We may be losing in South Croydon, but we’re winning in China’. This sort of attitude, yes. And I remember another very exciting by-election in about ’48 or ’49 which you went down to – Wigan, that’s right, with a very good miner as candidate, extremely good. And, you know, one fooled oneself that he might even win this. In the end he only got something like 2,000 votes, yes. So that one kidded oneself a good deal.
AW: How much awareness was there of the importance of the new British Road in 1950?
Well, you can’t really say there was a lot of importance for a wordy, ill-written document of that kind. I mean, the sense that we were sold by the party apparatus, the leadership, that this was a great initiative of which the British Communist Party found its own independent line to socialism, which was so sick in view of what’s come out since, that went over well because, partly because that very same leadership and bureaucracy was so absurdly pro-Soviet, and so dependent on Soviet models for everything, from the kind of history that should be written to the kind of genetics that one should believe in to the kind of art that should be painted and so on, that it was a great relief to have them coming forward saying, you know, we must have an independent British line. But it wasn’t of course, I mean, Stalin had had a hand in it.
AW: And the Communist Party Historians’ Group was one of the focuses of opposition in the early- to mid-‘50s to the party leadership, is that fair to say?
It was a very flexible group. I didn’t have a lot to do with it. We were in Yorkshire and it was a London-based group. And my wife Dorothy went to it more often than I did. It was flexible in the sense that it wasn’t controlled intellectually at all by any good Marxist guru from the Central Committee. In fact, it had, it did have, a guru, who wasn’t self-appointed but was regarded as such, in the very fine historian Dona Torr, who was fairly retiring, I mean she was getting on in years. And she was, it was fortunate, it was said that she was a personal friend of Harry Pollitt. She was a personal friend of Harry Pollitt and could protest the historians from interference. She had no time for what she called Talmudism. She had a great respect for the authentic traditions of the British working class, and British culture. And so there was a lot of free play and there was also this very strong input from highly qualified, very able, seventeenth century and medieval historians – Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, people like that. And they were striking out in a independent line, developing their own analysis. I think the important thing is that they were never stopped from doing it. They were even sometimes encouraged. Yes. So I wouldn’t have said this was a conflict situation. I don’t think we, although we already were very grumpy about incredibly stupid things that were done in King Street, King Street became a bad name throughout a whole region of the party then. It was the area where stupid things were done and bureaucratic interferences were done, Lysenko was supported, and goodness knows what.
AW: When did grumpiness become something closer to organised opposition?
Well, it’s a two-sided thing this. I mean, at the same time the cold war was getting underway. And that became very much a centre of one’s concentration. I mean, this was a very ugly period, the period of the formation of NATO, the period of – of the Korean war and wars elsewhere. So that one was involved in activity which one supposed was for peace and certainly was against the Korean war and so on, at the same time as the Communist Party ideology was becoming more sclerotic itself, more “only two ways”, you know, this very hard division of the world into two camps was taking place. So that on the one hand, one felt because of the cold war one had to continue to support the Communist Party. On the other hand, one was aware of its sclerosis, you know, of its incredibly doctrinaire two camps language and policies.
AW: So how far had things got before ’56?
Well, in my own -
(Dorothy Thompson: It’s very important … the manipulation of the peace movement [INDISTINCT])
Yes, that’s true. I was going to say – yes - yes - That was the kind of issue on which we had confrontation. I mean, I tell a story, I was responsible for the work of the peace movement, the Communist Party’s input into the peace movement in Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, which had a very strong, strongly organised and efficient Communist Party. And I was made responsible for that and went on to the district committee. And the secretary of the British Peace Committee, which was a supposedly non-party alliance body, resigned, and a new secretary was appointed directly from King Street. I think he’d been the propaganda secretary at King Street. And I was then told that this chap Bill Wainwright was going to come up to Yorkshire and would see the party cadres involved in the peace movement. And I said: you can’t do that. First of all, it’s absurd that this shouldn’t have been an openly advertised post. Secondly, if he’s coming up as the secretary of the British Peace Committee, then he comes to see the whole peace movement, the Quakers and the Labour Party people and ILP and all the lot, you know. And it was incredible the resistance that was made to this. I had, sort of, session after session with the district secretary, hammering it out. That shows the sort of flashpoint that would arise.
AW: When was that?
That would be, that would be 1954 or ’55. Yeah.
AW: So this was using broad-based organisations as if they were front organisations?
Yes, yes. I mean, I resented this very much.
AW: Was the intention simply to manipulate or to find a bed of recruits?
I think it was both to find recruits and a fear of letting the least thing get out of control. I mean, I remember another conference we had in which a resolution was put up by the ILP delegates against conscription. That was their policy, you know. No - yes. That’s right, against conscription. That’s roght. And the Communist Party’s policy was in favour of conscription, because they wanted a people’s army, you see. And I said, well, let this be voted, you know, as a free and open vote. No, you know, all the Communist cadres in the peace movement must get up et on their hind legs and argue against it and so on. This fear of letting anything get out of the least control.
AW: Bill Wainwright whom you talk about I think was the author of a pamphlet called Clear out Hitler’s agents: the story of Trotskyist disruption in Britain –
Very probably, yes. That sounds absolutely his line, yes.
AW: So how sectarian was the Communist Party?
Well, I have to say something surprising here. I was on the district committee for several years before ’56 in Yorkshire, and it was really some of the most able people I’ve ever worked with. It was an extraordinarily impressive committee, that is they had people from every sector of industry, from the steel industry, from mining, from the docks, from tailoring, and so on. And they were always able people. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever since had a political experience of the same sort. But alas, alas, alas, it was if you like within the wrong categories and the wrong parameters. So that all this intelligence and dedication was constricted in the wrong kind of forms. But I do want to insist that these people were able and dedicated, but very able, and did represent, I mean, these people did represent authentic British working class traditions, like Marion Ramelson was the daughter of a, a Labour alderman in Leeds, the chairman, Howard Hill, had been a Labour councillor in Sheffield, and was the author, was one of the initiators of the campaign to open up the, open up the moors, the Pennine Way, yes. I mean, they came out of this sort, these sorts of tradition. And they, they weren’t Soviet agents who were planted in Yorkshire or they wouldn’t have done as well as they did. Their ambition was to turn round the Yorkshire coalfield, and of course this did happen in the end.
AW: How well were the industrial and intelligentsia wings of the party welded together? How well did they work together?
Well, that was one of the pleasures of the peace movement, that you worked together in that, and you worked together in your own local branch, which in our case was a very small one in Halifax. But you had a lot of common and pleasurable common experiences in a thing like the ‘Daily Worker’ bazaar every Christmas, you’d all be working away at getting products together for the sale. Yeah, I mean I think they worked together fairly well on the whole.
AW: How high was the level of political discussion at branch meetings?
Well, they were formulaic, that is you had a, a sort of form of a, you started the meeting with a political report. And I think that’s a good thing and I think the Labour Party would have benefitted if it had its political report at its meetings. I mean, what’s so dreadful about the Labour Party is its total lack of political structure, in most cases, I mean, there may be places where it’s done. They started with a political report, but – alas, alas, alas – the formula was always: let’s look at the Soviet Union, what sort of predicament the Soviet Union is in, and then deduce our policy in Britain, and world policy from that. And we most of us went along with that, until the Khruschev secret speech of course.
AW: Can you talk me through the events, the reaction to that, and the events that led up to the formation of ‘The Reasoner’ and the response of King Street to ‘The Reasoner’?
Yeah, yeah. Well, it was a quite astonishing document. I mean –
AW: Before we go on to ‘The Reasoner’, you talk about the evident sincerity and ability of your colleagues in the Communist Party in West Yorkshire. Why then did they have such a conspicuous lack of electoral success?
Yeah, this is interesting. The political electoral success was always very poor, and in their trade unions and in industrial terms it was often very good. That is the, I mean there were one or two quite big firms in Sheffield that were completely tied up by Communist shop stewards, completely tied up. And they would succeed in getting elected to, oh, very often secretary and president of the trades council, so on and so forth, with little difficulty, because the workers respected their toughness, and knew they would deliver what they promised. But the same workers would not vote for them as local councillors or as MPs, because they distrusted their politics, they had enough sense to see through that.
AW: I was brought up in Leeds, this would be quite a few years later. Johnny Gollan used to stand for a Leeds seat every general election and he used to get about 400 votes, and that was in Leeds Central which was always deemed to be the most left-wing seat. So why was that translation not made? Was that a political failing of the Communist Party?
Well, yes, I think a deep distrust of Russia and, and of the Russian influence upon the British Communists. And a sense that people didn’t forget twists and turns in British Communist Party policy, which were usually subject to Third International or Soviet influence. And they saw them as politically an alien body, although they didn’t see them in the workshop as an alien body.
AW: Turning back to ’56 and the secret speech, when did you first hear about the text of Khruschev’s speech?
Hah, in the ‘Observer’. Absolutely shattering. I mean, the first reaction was this can’t be true. Then we realised it was true. The British Communist Party tried to pretend for a bit, Pollitt, that it wasn’t true. And then climbed down. It was of course direct contradiction – a massive, massive contradiction – of a whole two decades of Soviet propaganda. And therefore undercut the entire sort of political framework that the Communist Party operated on. But the immediate anger, I mean it was quite an exciting period in some ways, because there was a tide of something we called socialist humanism, which was international. I mean, it was quite strong in Poland and amongst some of the Hungarian writers and so on. So you had a feeling of loosening happening. But not in the British Communist Party. I mean, the resistance to even allowing the letter column of the ‘Daily Worker’ be fully open to debate was extraordinary. Very, very fierce resistance. And therefore the issue that became most prominent in our minds was to try and break open the security structures of the British Communist Party and open it to a more democratic process. And that meant revaluing the whole form in which the leadership was elected, the form of dialogue, whether factions should be allowed, whether alternative journals should be allowed, and so on. So that was what the pressure that by May we were mounting was.
AW: Did you actually think you would achieve that?
Yes, I think we did. I think we, and I think it wasn’t, in certain circumstances, it wasn’t out of the question. I mean, there were Eurocommunist parties before the ‘60s. beginning to develop. I mean, I think the, one or two parties, like the American and the Australian, did shift their structures a good deal for a while. So, we didn’t think it was impossible. And the degree of groundswell inside the party itself was so extensive, this gave one the impression that it couldn’t be stopped.
AW: What was the forum for operating inside the party? How did you know how was strong the groundswell was?
Usually through friendship networks. This is a fair question. I mean, there really wasn’t any way so long as they controlled the correspondence columns in the journals and so on that one could, and that’s where some of the fights took place. I mean, a very tough fight for me to get a article in the party’s house journal called ‘World News and Views’, which eventually I got in, extremely sardonic piece which George Matthews replied to. And - I remember one meeting that absolutely shattered me. I was at the Yorkshire district committee, and, this was after we’d started the duplicated journal called ‘The Reasoner’ which was advertised simply as a channel for discussion and debate, and was, although by its last number – it had three numbers – took a more pronounced position. And tremendous pressure was brought upon us to stop this. I mean, it was outrage against democratic centralism, and outrage against the principles, supposedly Leninist, that there should be no factions in the party and so on. They didn’t, could not abide the idea of anyone in the party independent of central control running a journal. And they first of all tried to get the Yorkshire district committee, because my colleague was John Saville, also in Yorkshire, to sit on us and stop us, and summoned us in to be reprimanded by the district committee and so on. But even at that stage, it was clear that some members of the district committee were on our side. One or two full-time organisers were. People of great ability, and they were deeply troubled themselves. The chairman, Howard Hill, was deeply troubled. The organiser in Leeds, Jim Roche, former tailoring worker, he was so troubled that he had a stroke and he left the Communist Party on the same issues. So I mean this was a traumatic period.
AW: The motive force behind this was the shock over Khruschev’s speech, not over Hungary?
It was, no, it was the shock over Khruschev’s speech. And the shock over the failure of the leaders of the British Communist Party to come clean about how much they had known, and how much they had misled their own members about their own – I mean, I, one of my big shocks was on this Yorkshire district committee, we had a very able former secretary who came up to give the political report called Mick Jenkins. And in the course of his report, he said, of course - the British Road to Socialism, some parts of it were written by Stalin’s fair hand. And I, I asked in a discussion session what he meant by this. And he said, yes, some sections were, including the bit about a socialist commonwealth of nations, that the British Empire must hold together as a socialist commonwealth of nations, that is a Soviet model.
AW: So you were actually aware at the time, there was discussion within the part, about Stalin’s role in drafting the British Road?
That was the only discussion ever. And people were quite shocked, people on the Central Committee were shocked that Mick Jenkins had been guilty of such an indiscretion. And indeed he disappeared from sight. He may be around still. If so, Mick, I send you greetings (laughs).
AW: But at least it was common knowledge among those who worked and operated from King Street that the British Road wasn’t exactly a British road at all?
I think from the top, top group of those people, yes.
AW: When did you cross the Rubicon in terms of party membership?
(INTERRUPTED TO TURN OVER AUDIO CASSETTE)
AW: When did you realise you were crossing the Rubicon? Or when was the Rubicon crossed?
Well, we were being pushed towards it all the time by the fight to continue publishing ‘The Reasoner’. If you couldn’t change the structures and the method of discourse and the arena for discourse in the party, then it was unchangeable. But it was the Hungarian insurrection and the response of the British Communist Party’s leadership to that, including the suppression of some reports like Peter Fryer’s in the ‘Daily Worker’, which were the - they were the last straw. So, we brought out the third number of ‘The Reasoner’ in October, was it? The same month as the Hungarian insurrection. It was actually sort of going into production when the suppression of the insurrection took place. And I wrote on to typewriter, direct on to the skins – it was duplicated – a long editorial article about this. And after that I think we decided that no more chance of changing the party. And we pulled out.
AW: Did you actually hand in your party card or did you simply lapse?
We were suspended for, for three months or so, or six months - because of our indiscipline with ‘The Reasoner’. But we weren’t expelled. And so we, I think we sent a formal letter when we got the suspension, saying that we were resigning.
AW: And you in a sense resigned into a void. There was no attempt to form a breakaway party or any organisation of that sort?
Well, there were several different splinter groups. I mean, some took a distinctly committed Trotskyist position, Peter Fryer did, and they joined that, what became the Socialist Workers Party. International Socialists, yes. Others, I think the more working class and trade unionist elements had an easier transition. They just simply took a step to the middle and re-entered the Labour Party and continued their work, which they’d already been doing, in trade unions and trades councils and so on. So they just simply went on as they were. A lot of people who became quite prominent in British trade union life were from that group. There were one or two strong areas of opposition like west Fife, where there was a West Fife Socialist League formed which did contest a Parliamentary election with considerably good results with Laurence Daly who went on to be the general secretary of the NUM. But I think the intellectuals tended to continue their intellectual work and to look more for published sources of getting together and continuing discourse, yeah.
AW: You had been a member for, what, fourteen years by this time.
AW:It must have been a very large part of your political identity. With what thoughts did you give up membership?
Well, I was always rather emotional about it. It had been a very deep commitment, because a theme we haven’t mentioned is my, my brother was a British officer, liaison officer with the Bulgarian partisans, and he lost his life in that and became a national hero of Bulgaria and I had been very much moved by all this and had had a little bit to do with Bulgaria, and Dorothy and I had also had a bit to do with Yugoslavia and had a great admiration for the Yugoslav resistance. So it wasn’t a ordinary commitment. It was a very emotional commitment and one that was felt with a sense of loss, yes.
AW: Your brother Frank was also a Communist Party member, is that right?
AW: He obviously joined before you did?
AW: But you weren’t from a Communist household?
No, no. I – no my father was a sort of Liberal radical who ended up in the Labour Party, and my mother did too. She was an Arabist, and my father was more connected with India. I don’t know if my brother had any sort of formal relationship with the Communist Party after he entered the army. I rather think not much.
AW: Looking back on your period as a member of the Communist Party, how do you regard it? With pride, or with regret?
Well, one still has never found again a group of people united by common, clearly-held political convictions. Unfortunately some of these were wrong convictions, but that sort of political dedication is something that I’ve never found - except perhaps in some ways in the peace movement. So in that sense, one has a feeling of loss. In another sense, one had a feeling of fury at the dishonesty of the entire international Communist apparatus. More than dishonesty, its total corruption, increasing corruption. And its methods of silencing opponents. And the complicity of the British Communist Party leadership in this.
AW: Is there an unstated “if only” in what you’re saying? If only you’d won the argument within the party in ’56, do you think the CPGB could have been a significant force?
Well obviously we thought so then. In hindsight, in hindsight it’s very difficult to uphold that because I don’t think, I don’t think such a victory could have been won, and held. That’s all I can say really.
AW: And as you’ve watched the continuing decline of the CPGB and some certainly, quite a few I’d imagine of your one-time colleagues still within the party, any feelings of sadness about that? Or simply a party which is dooming itself to irrelevance?
I - more the second, really. I think that if people hadn’t learned their lesson in ’56 then they must have learned it in ’68 when, when Brezhnev went into Prague. Of course, the British Communist Party did make a qualified objection to this, but it wasn’t enough. And I mean it did irrevocably show the character, domination - and the refusal of democratic process that the international Communist movement had.
AW: You’ve recently, this is to change tack a little bit, you’ve recently allowed your membership of the Labour Party to lapse. So does that mean you see no hope for a progressive, socialist party in this country?
No, bubble, bubble, bubble, the soup goes on stewing. I think there may be some new kind of formation, it will be a greenish sort of socialism, I think there must be much greater emphasis upon democratic process within the movement itself than we’ve seen in either the Labour Party or the Communist Party. And it’s all very well us going on about how undemocratic the Communist Party was, but that monstrous organisation the Labour Party, which is formed on the model of the Methodist conference in the nineteenth century, with all its manipulation of resolutions and so on and so forth, cooking of agendas, and with, you know, that incredible episode where the Labour Party a couple of years ago supposedly devoted immense research and thought to a new defence policy which was, with some trouble, passed through conference, and then earlier this year Mr Gerald Kaufman, the shadow foreign secretary, invents a new policy which had never been discussed anywhere in the party, and that becomes the party policy without any process of discussion. I mean, it’s absurdly undemocratic, that party. Offensively so.
AW: What you seem to be suggesting is that as the Communist Party has belatedly abandoned democratic centralism, the Labour Party has picked up the habit?
Hah - yes, that’s a good point, yes. Imbecilic centralism I call it. Yeah.
AW: Is there anything that’s worth retrieving of the Communist tradition?
Yes, I think I never have refused the Communist tradition as a whole. I think it has its brilliant moments, and its very courageous moments. I think the Spanish civil war, with all the complexities, was one of them. I think there have been great industrial struggles in several countries in which the Communists have played a very large and important part. I think they’ve always been on the side of enhanced educational opportunity and social welfare and health and so on. I think they’ve always supported these issues, and sometimes made a significant contribution. I mean, I think left-wing, not only Communist, but left-wing doctors were probably very important in the early years of the health service when the majority of their colleagues were hostile to the health service. It was very important to have these voices, and I think that is it, voices. There’ve always been voices in different areas of our intellectual, cultural and industrial life that have been Communist voices, or voices influenced by Communism, that have had a significant impact upon the formation of opinion.
AW: Martin Jacques who resigned from the Communist Party just a matter of two or three weeks back says that he now believes the Russian revolution wasn’t simply a wrong turning, but it was a tragedy for the international socialist movement, and that whole Bolshevik tradition of which the CPGB in its early stages was a part was a tragedy for the socialist movement –
Yeah, you call it a tragedy, I mean I think that what was patently obvious certainly by ’56 and probably had been for years before to other people, was that the way one conducts an underground political party in highly repressive authoritarian circumstances gives rise to structures and rules of conduct which are totally inappropriate to a democracy. And yet Leninism had rigidified these into a universal rule. And I think Jacques is right if that’s what he’s saying, yes.
AW: So you would rather that the Bolshevik revolution had never taken place? No, I didn’t say that. I, I don’t say things like that. I mean, I think that great historical events one can’t have a ‘rather’ about, they happen, they are there, one has to try and understand them and that’s it. That’s all I can say about it.
interviewed by Andrew Whitehead in Worcestershire, 1 December 1991 – 26 minutes
covers joining the Communist Party while still at school at the end of the 1930s, party discipline, and recollections of leaders such as Palme Dutt and Harry Pollitt; the role of women in the party, especially during the Second World War; CPGB activity; leaving the party in 1956; recites ‘Harry was a Bolshie’, song about Jubilee
Dorothy Thompson nee Towers (1923-2011), historian of Chartism and married to E.P. Thompson. YCL/CPGB member from 1939-56.
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