Letter on the Electricians Union in the 1950s

L&TUR is pleased to publish a letter that was sent to Marxism Today but not published by them. We have omitted things that are specific to the editorial in Marxism Today to which the letter was meant to be a reply.

… First it was Stalin that was blamed for everything that went wrong with communism in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the various communist parties throughout the world. Later Lenin was roped in to take his share of the blame, and now it’s the Man himself Marx.

What strikes me is that there is not even a hint that in some small way, the great number of middle-class philosophers who dominated the various communist parties might have had some responsibility for the developments, and later, the continuation of the rot that set in.

In the late 1950s I attended a specially convened meeting of the N/W London advisory committee. This was an organisation of working-class trade unionists who were also members of the C.P. Out of about 100 members there were over 60 in attendance at that meeting. I was asked to move a motion which called for the setting-up of a responsible committee of the C.P. to “investigate the undemocratic behaviour of certain members of the C.P. in the E.T.U.” (The Electricians Union, then run by CP. members, and now the EEPTU, the leading union on the right of the labour movement. Ed.)

The meeting was convened because a lot of working-class communist party members were opposed to the fiddling of ballots on the E.T.U. Our interpretation of Marxism told us that such behaviour was not in the interests of our class. We did not need a Gorbachev to tell us so.

The motion was fully discussed and approved with one abstention and none against. Needless to say no action was taken by the powers-that-be. And the middle-class philosophers, who were fully informed, kept silent. Later Frank Chapple and some others broke the whole story to the press, and the rest you know.

(For those who don’t, the CP. faction in charge were convicted of ballot-rigging, after which Frank Chapple, a former C.P. member, led an internal power-struggle that ousted them. Meanwhile the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star) carried a headline suggesting that they’d been acquitted – what had actually happened was that they’d been acquitted on some additional charges. This bit of trickery was widely pointed out and widely laughed at. Ed.)

Is it going a bit too far to suggest, that if the motion by working-class communists in the late 1950s had been acted upon positively by the C.P. hierarchy, and the various London branches – which were, on the whole, dominated by middle-class communists – that glasnost and perestroika might have had their origins here in Britain in the 1950s?

If that is straining credibility a bit, there is nevertheless a very obvious question here – why was it that, a large and important organisation of C.P. trade0 unionists could see the necessity for democratic reform of the C.P. while the hierarchy, including the philosophers, could only respond to their demands by attempts at cover-up or silence?

Would discussion of such questions as this not be more fruitful than all the speculation about the fallibility of individuals? If Lenin and Stalin can be held responsible for everything that went wrong then those people responsible for blocking any investigation into undemocratic behaviour by C.P. members in the E.T.U need never be called upon to account for their actions. Unless and until communists here in Britain are prepared to examine honestly the behaviour of leaders much closer to home, any talk of “a need for a renewal of socialist thinking” will be empty indeed. Perhaps adequate for trendy middle-class drawing-rooms and bars, but a hindrance to the development of socialism rather than a help.

Have you noticed, by the way, that in spite of the comings and goings of the various communist parties, the working class, here and worldwide, continues to evolve in its own imperfect way? Continuously making a response to the unceasing attacks of market economics. Imperfect the struggle may be, but nevertheless, more or less as Marx described it.

Gerry Golden


This article appeared in May 1990, in Issue 17 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.