The Totalitarians at Tolpuddle

This year I attended the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset for the very first time. It was on the bucket list for a Canadian friend and as I’d never been before, I thought – why not?

For those who’ve never heard of it, the festival is an annual event held to mark the repression suffered by pioneering British trade unionists in the nineteenth century. The sleepy village of Tolpuddle has a little museum and a few small businesses that trade off its legacy, for example The Martyrs’ Inn. This was the first year since 2019 that the festival could go ahead in person.

The Tolpuddle festival is no Glastonbury. Yes, people do camp out in a field. There is music. But in some ways it feels like more of a TUC congress than a summer festival. There are union flags everywhere. The larger unions have marquees where events take place. My partner listened in on Unite-sponsored discussion about agricultural workers. I sat in on a poorly-attended talk given by a leader of the Myanmar labour movement in a UCU-sponsored international solidarity tent.

The parking area and the tents were filled with flags — many of them union flags. There were also quite a few Palestinian flags on display. These were not displayed by the official Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which did not bother to show up to its well-attended session at the UCU tent. (There was no need: many audience members knew the lines and the others hummed along.)

But perhaps the most striking thing to me about Tolpuddle was the presence of an openly totalitarian group at the festival. And not only their presence, but who enabled it.

I’m referring, of course, to the Communist Party of Britain (CPB).

When entering the festival grounds, just before the burrito stand and the beer tent, one was greeted by CPB members handing out free copies of their daily newspaper, the Morning Star.

As they were proud to point out, the free copies for all festival-goers was enabled by a generous donation from the RMT union, whose leader, Mick Lynch, was the undisputed star of the weekend thanks to his inspiring leadership of one of the great union struggles this year.

At the previous festival in 2019, the Communists managed to give away 2,500 copies of their newspaper; this year, with a smaller crowd, they gave out fewer.

The inside pages of the special edition of the paper contained many half and quarter page advertisements for British trade unions, including regional and local branches. Unite, which has helped finance the Morning Star for many years, was quite prominent among them.

Everyone seemed to be falling over themselves to show their support for the “daily newspaper of the left”.

The Communist Party’s stall had a few books and pamphlets, but the one they were pushing hardest was a new book about the 100-year history of the party. It consisted of mini-biographies of outstanding figures in the party, both leaders and rank-and-file activists.

I flipped through the book. The first name I spotted was Melita Norwood, the KGB spy. I commented on this to the woman who was trying to sell me a copy. “Yes,” she said, “we are trying to be inclusive.”

I asked if the book included anyone who had either quit, or was expelled, from the party during its first 100 years.

“No, no, of course not,” she replied.

The Young Communist League (YCL), proud of their Stalinist past, were nowhere to be seen — no doubt to the great relief of the adult party members. The last time they were seen in public, at a TUC march, they chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Stalin!”

I discussed the YCL’s most recent escapades (covered brilliantly in this newspaper by Jim Denham) with representatives of a couple of the far left groups in attendance.

The SWP had a pamphlet somewhere on their table explaining to young people why Stalin might not be such a great role model. I don’t think anyone bought a copy. When I mentioned to the activist staffing their table that I hadn’t yet stumbled on the Stalinists, he muttered something about how we don’t use that word anymore, we don’t to be divisive, something like that.

In a rather longer conversation with the comrades from Socialist Appeal (International Marxist Tendency) they seemed more aware of the danger of neo-Stalinism, particularly among radicalised youth. They explained that their organisation was taking this very seriously and engaging with the Young Communists.

Now let’s be clear about this. I have no problem with ex-Stalinists and post-Stalinists. In countries like Italy, the entire modern left grows out of what used to be a Communist Party. It is unlikely that at election rallies of the Partito Democratico one would find portraits of the former Soviet dictator. Even the British Communist Party passed through a “Eurocommunist” phase when it began to rethink its totalitarian past.

However this Communist Party, its youth section and its daily newspaper represent a throw-back to an earlier era. Proud of their totalitarian past, they represent no less of a threat than the neo-fascists on the right.

Whether or not they should be welcome at festivals like Tolpuddle is up to the organisers of those events. But continued union financing of their activities, especially the Morning Star newspaper, has got to stop now.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.