Gerry Hassan: Debate needs spirit of Communists

Stalin died 60 years ago. Picture: Getty
Stalin died 60 years ago. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

The Soviet Bloc may have been a disaster but we still need the far-left to challenge mainstream parties’ acceptance of free market dogma, writes Gerry Hassan

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 that sent ripples of uncertainty through the then monolithic Soviet bloc. 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 unravelling of the system, which led to Mikhail 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.

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, and in particular on home rule.

In the years of Labour anti-devolution, from the Clement 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 were 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 coming back to the idea of 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 the 1970s, when the then Ted Heath government seemed to my parents to practise the most right-wing, uncaring Tory politics they could possibly imagine.

My father saw 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, not really looking for an answer.

The appeal of Stalinism extended beyond “the party”, for example to Labour’s Ernie Ross in Dundee and Ron Brown in Leith; part of this was borne by a belief that 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 into a soft set of alliances. In Scotland, Democratic Left remains as a humbled, small force trying to do good through drawing together red, green and feminist ideas.

A Scottish politics without the contribution of a Communist Party shows the significant impact it made. In the vacuum it left came Tommy Sheridan and his caricature of revolutionary politics, which blew up in his and his party’s face. And without it, 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. There can be no nostalgia for a system that killed millions, suppressed many more, and contorted political reality to suit itself.

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 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. 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. They would have produced pamphlets, organised debates and conferences, 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 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 than the one currently on offer.

Their resources may be less than the Scottish Communists at their peak, but they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to produce radical ideas and politics which could have an impact on the way Scotland votes and thinks in 2014 and after.