Raphael Samuel – The Lost World of British Communism Exposed

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‘It is a curious fact that in the years of the Cold War, when the Party was defending some terrible causes as well as some noble ones, and when, in trade union branches and on street corners, members were having to make a case for the indefensible, the Party was in better shape morally and organisationally than it is today, when its positions are no longer impossibilist, and when it is a great deal more modest about itself.’

(Raphael Samuel – The Lost World of British Communism – Page 43)

This book is comprised of three articles written by Raphael Samuel between 1985 – 1987 (and published in New Left Review). The author died in 1996 – one year before the rise of the neo-conservative ‘New’ Labour, but he lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union (in 1991). Whether Raphael Samuel was ever a ‘true’ Communist is open to doubt, as his book is as much an attack upon the Marxist-Leninist ‘Communist’ Movement, as it is a presentation of a blinkered history. Of course, this attack is camouflaged as ‘discussion’, but it is important to note that Samuel left the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1956, at the young age of just 21. Although broughtup in a ‘Communist’ family, (the entire ‘moral’ justification behind Samuel considering his own rhetoric ‘knowledgeable’), the fact remains that his understanding at that time (which obviously was not ‘formulative’) remains dialectically immature, and may account for why Samuel continuously refers to CPGB rules and regulations passed, abandoned or reformed during the 1920’s! That is, Samuel exercises the habit of presenting the CPGB through the history, data and information he has subsequently encountered after leaving movement. Therefore, this is not a truly ‘biographical’ account of the CPGB – as asserted on the cover’s publicity blurb – and any history of Samuel’s direct involvement with the CPGB is understandably childish recollections of long ago, with no historical value.

Raphael Samuel is writing as a bourgeois historian who has fully accepted and endorsed the capitalist status quo, but who maintains a ‘nostalgia’ for what he considers a lost past. Samuel seeks to draw the reader into this inverted would of bourgeois illogicality whereby what he thinks about the CPGB (and International Communism) is the only viewpoint of the world worth having. This is very similar to a ‘cult mentality’ that is all-pervasive and beyond rational examination. Raphael Samuel’s entertaining, and at times informative take on the history of the CPGB is over-all ‘wrong’ simply because it is a bourgeois distortion. He takes (as his ideological basis) not the Marxist-Leninism allegedly of his youth, but rather the rightwing rhetoric of Trotsky and US Cold War disinformation. Samuel possesses the ability to simultaneously sentimentalise the CPGB whilst denigrate and misrepresenting its history and political function within British society. His continuous allusions to Joseph Stalin being a dictator is never once balanced with any reference to the suffering the Soviet people suffered during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (1941-45), or the fact that it was Joseph Stalin and his command of the Red Army that eventually destroyed Nazi Germany. Again, this ‘anti-Slavic’ undercurrent is well-hidden behind the fact that Samuel had a relative who is ‘Russian’.

What I find interesting is how Samuel, describing himself as a historian influenced by Marx, could not see in the 1980’s, the blatant misrepresentation of Soviet history and policy that is easily visible to the more perceptive of us today. Even if Raphael Samuel argued that we possess a better vantage point now – post-USSR – than he did then, I would have to counter with the work of Alexander Werth and ER Carr (both British historians), who never identified themselves as ‘Communists’, but who as ‘objective’ historians, continuously worked to expose US and British Cold War lies against the Soviet Union and the character of Joseph Stalin. Grover Furr in modern times has investigated and exposed this ‘pseudo-history’ to a much greater extent, together with such modern Russians historians as Lyudo Martens, etc. Raphael Samuel could not have been much of a ‘Marxist’ historian if he could not dialectically ‘see through’ the vagaries of Trotskyism and the deceit of US Cold War ideology, unless, of course, Samuel actually supported Trotskyism and related that support to rightwing capitalism as practised by the USA.

Dishonesty runs through this book from start to finish. The reader who feels entertained by Samuel’s descriptive antics and paradoxical turn of phrase, will continue to read regardless of the anti-Communist views being expressed. Writing in the midst of rightwing Thatcherism and the whole-sale Tory attack upon the British Welfare State, NHS, Social Housing and free education, Raphael Samuel remains oddly ‘mute’ on what is going on around him. It is as if he is busy living the bourgeois ‘good life’ in a state of splendid isolation, and divorced from reality. He is busy interpreting the CPGB through its 1920’s rules and regulations, and his brief (and immature) experience in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. He appears completely unaware of the social and cultural devastation sweeping through the Tory Britain of the mid-1980’s, or indeed the slow disintegration that was beginning to unfold in the Soviet Union during this time. He also misses the most important of historical and political points relevant to the time within which he lived, namely that the CPGB remained the only sole and genuine representative of the working class in the UK, and never faulted in this task. This continued in 1988, when key CPGB Members – together with the Morning Star newspaper – left the by now disintegrating CPGB – forming the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). Raphael Samuel sees none of this coming. He is too busy explaining his path toward the acceptance of capitalism and the bourgeois status quo, and when he looks back at his youth, how he now remotely perceives a past image of the CPGB, mistakenly believed to be existing in the present moment, albeit modified so a to seemingly corrupt its character.

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