The Communist Party of Great Britain archive

The central correspondence of the CPGB
Date published: 
July 2008

Series CP/CENT/SEC: Following the example of Stalin in the USSR, the general secretary emerged as the key official of the CPGB and other communist parties. In the case of Harry Pollitt, CPGB general secretary from 1929-39 and 1941-56, this figure was not only described as party 'leader', as if corresponding to the same position in more conventional parties, but was subject to a fitful and sometimes rather embarrassing cult of personality. As the direct oversight of the Comintern became somewhat attenuated from the late 1930s, appreciable powers of patronage and advancement within the party also fell to the general secretary. The study of these developments is of interest, not only to comparative historians of communism, but to students of party institutions more generally.
Personal papers survive both of Pollitt and his successors, notably John Gollan, general secretary from 1956-77. Their official correspondence as general secretaries is also revealing; for example, it can provide a vivid insight into the eddies of communist opinion, particularly at times of crisis such as 1956-7 and virtually the whole of the 1980s, by which time Gollan's fellow Scot Gordon McLennan had replaced him in this position. The concentration of party leaders in King Street meant that they were rarely forced to correspond, unless for the specific purpose of putting their views on record. Discussions of the party secretariat, or of the tight knot of functionaries who effectively directed policy, are thus rarely documented. Conversely, individuals, branches and even districts away from the centre often had no choice but to resort to more durable forms of communication. Paradoxically, the institutional holdings of this highly centralised organisation sometimes reveal more about responses further down the party's ranks than they do about its elite-level discussions.