August 1990: a very British coup

The slow implosion of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was echoed in the internal divisions and crises that consumed its western associates. Indeed, the once influential Communist Party of Great Britain faced its own trauma exactly a year before the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Geoff Andrews recalls the moment when new-times became end-times.  
Geoff Andrews
5 September 2011

In August 1991, the world woke up to the news that Mikhail Gorbachev, the enlightened president of the Soviet Union, whose introduction of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (structural reforms) paved the way for the end of the cold war, had been removed from power. Tass, the Soviet news agency, reported that he had been taken ill while at his holiday dacha in the Crimea, but as events unfolded it soon became clear that the conservatives had made a last desperate attempt to halt the process of reform.

The attempted coup collapsed in dramatic circumstances, most of all because there was no enthusiasm among the Russian people for turning back the clock. In the uncertain hours when Gorbachev’s fate was in the balance, many other pro-reform communist parties had publicly demonstrated their support for what they saw as the Soviet Union’s last and best hope, even though they knew that many of their own long-held beliefs were likely to go with him.

These included the small but once (and in a certain way still) influential Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which a year earlier had undergone its own attempted coup. It was a very British drama: a mix of farce and factionalism.

The occupation

On a late Friday afternoon in August 1990, I was sitting before an old typewriter on the fourth or fifth floor (I don’t remember which) of a musty and equally old office building in St John Street, Clerkenwell (close to where Fergus Henderson’s award-winning St John restaurant is now situated, in this historic but then neglected part of central London).

It was quiet; the party’s new leader Nina Temple - who had been elected in face of the trenchant opposition of members disturbed by the party’s pro-Gorbachev line - was on her own summer holiday. I was working part-time as the organiser of a public event poignantly called “Futures”, but which in fact turned out to be one of the last ever CP conferences. The events of the next few hours hardly compare with what was to occur in Moscow, but in their own way were significant for the future of the British left.

At around 4.30pm, when most people had already left, an unfamiliar face appeared at the door and informed me that the building was now under occupation and that I should leave. Joining others downstairs, I walked into a scene of complete confusion. It appeared that the party offices had been stormed by supporters of The Leninist newspaper, a small anti-reform faction which had broken away a few years earlier. This group remained committed to an unreconstructed Soviet model of communism and was very hostile to the “Eurocommunist” leadership of the Communist Party -and particularly its flagship magazine Marxism Today (MT), whose modern design, ecumenical contents and media impact it regarded as a betrayal of the working class.

The intruders had failed either to get people to leave or to take over the switchboard that channelled all communications with the outside world. However, they (or someone else) had managed to send a message to Sky News, which had promptly turned up with cameras and interviewer. The police had also arrived but were unable to do anything; instead they explained the rather convoluted procedures whereby they could not enter the building to remove the protesters, but they could intervene if our attempts to remove them were resisted.

The drama was then played out partly in front of the media and partly behind closed doors. The handful of us in the building at the time included Martin Jacques, the editor of Marxism Today. “This is symptomatic of the decline of the party”, he told me as we passed on the stairs. He then instructed me to guard the cramped offices of the magazine - the jewel in the party’s rapidly fading crown, but a symbol of contempt for the “tankies” (the popular name for Soviet apologists) who despised its glossy pages and “designer Marxism”.

At the time, Margaret Thatcher’s eleven years in power were coming to an end, though the British left was in no condition to take over. MT’s leading writers (such as Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm, Beatrix Campbell and Geoff Mulgan) were, however, moving on from their influential analysis of Thatcherism towards an effort to articulate the left alternative. It would be a near half-decade before the idea of New Labour began to take shape under Tony Blair (and even longer before Mulgan was to become director of policy at 10 Downing Street).

The chaos subsided into stalemate, with The Leninist vanguard sitting defiantly on the stairs and refusing to budge. From this position they sought to provoke an impromptu debate and conduct a mild interrogation of their “revisionist” foes; amongst other things trying to get Martin to confess that he was no longer a communist. Outside, as police constables tried to make sense of the esoteric schisms on the British left, MT’s deputy editor, Chris Granlund (now a BBC producer) thrust a copy of the current issue before the Sky cameras. “This is what they’re against”, he told Rupert Murdoch’s finest. That month’s magazine cover was adorned with images of sexual desire.

A couple of hours passed without progress or solution, with neither side prepared to leave and the police bemusedly looking on. By this time it was evening. We decided to hold an impromptu meeting of the remaining office colleagues. Ian MacKay, one of a long line of experienced and trusted Scottish party leaders, took over in Nina Temple’s absence and told the meeting that our priority was to stay and secure the building - and, it seemed to some of us, to hold on to communist identity itself - however long that took.

The fallout

Now, such a proposal would then normally have appealed to what Gramscians like myself called a “war of position” - a long and difficult process of winning hegemony, changing hearts and minds and consolidating gains along the way (as we used to put it). From this distance I can’t recall whether Martin had a dinner engagement, but I was certainly keen to get the last bus back to Oxford, and so Antonio Gramsci’s alternative strategy, a “war of manoeuvre”, seemed the more sensible strategy.

A suggestion that the CP builders’ branch be invited to remove the occupiers had some appeal, but in the spirit of “new times” - the CP’s own version of glasnost and perestroika - a group of women party members was asked to escort the protesters off the premises. This they did and The Leninist contingent left the building to a subdued rendition of The Internationale.

A few days later, we got a postcard from Nina Temple saying she hoped there hadn’t been any more coups. A year on, in August 1991, she and other CP leaders came to Mikhail Gorbachev’s defence in his own moment of crisis, but by then it was too late on all sides.

Towards the end of 1991, the Communist Party of Great Britain became the Democratic Left, which in December 1999 morphed into the New Politics Network (led by a Liberal Democrat). Marxism Today folded along with the party that had funded it, though it returned in 1998 for a special issue in which it denounced Tony Blair’s leadership. The CPGB archives, after some time in an old warehouse in Hackney, east London, finally made their way to the National Museum of Labour History (now the People's History Museum) in Manchester. As for The Leninist, the last I heard was that it had set itself up as the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee)”.

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