In January 1951, the Communist Party's executive committee published a new programme, The British Road to Socialism, for discussion. Its main propositions had been extensively discussed and agreed with Stalin and the Soviet leadership, although the most significant features had already emerged in previous British congress resolutions and Party publications.
Militant trade unionists, socialists and progressives welcomed the programme's sharp condemnation of the Tories and right-wing Labour:
'If the people are to advance, both Tories and their allies in the Labour Movement, the right-wing Labour leaders, must be fought and defeated. The lesson of the failure of the Labour Government is not the failure of socialism. It is the failure of Labour reformism and Labour imperialism, which is the servant of the big capitalist interests'.
At the core of the BRS was the need to take state power out of the hands of the capitalist minority and implement a policy of socialist nationalisation: 'The people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real People's Democracy, transforming Parliament, the product of Britain's historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of the people'.
With Communist victories in eastern Europe and China tilting the world balance of forces against imperialism, the BRS argued that ruling class resistance could be overcome without civil war: 'A people's Parliament and Government which draws its strength from a united movement of the people, with the working class as its core, will be able to mobilise the overwhelming majority of the people for decisive measures to break the economic and political power of the big exploiters'.
Warning that the capitalist class will resist 'by all means in their power, including force', the programme insisted that the people and their government 'should be ready decisively to rebuff such attempts'.
Britain could break free from US domination, dismantle the British Empire and pursue an independent foreign policy for peace and cooperation. The BRS also confirmed the Communist Party's call for British military withdrawal from northern Ireland, for a united Ireland and for full recognition of the national claims of Scotland and Wales.
Within three months, more than 150,000 copies of The British Road to Socialism had been distributed. It stimulated a huge debate throughout the labour movement on the nature of the British state and how people's democratic control could be exerted over the mass media, the civil service, the Foreign Office, the armed forces, the police and the judicial system.
Despite the intense hostility of the British establishment, the 'secret state' and the mass media, the CP carried out political agitation on an extraordinary scale.
With membership down to 35,124, the Party nonetheless held 2,000 indoor and 5,000 outdoor public meetings—many at factory gates—in the course of 1952. Weekend sales of the Daily Worker averaged 49,000 copies.
With the Bevanites vacillating, it fell to the Communist Party to galvanise resistance to US and British imperialism abroad and Tory policies at home.
On April 28, 1952, the Daily Worker carried front-page pictures of British soldiers in Malaya displaying the heads of freedom fighters, cut off by bounty hunters. They made world-wide news. The Tory Cabinet thought about prosecuting the paper for treason, but then had to admit that the photographs were genuine.
Only a few courageous Labour MPs, like SO Davies, joined the CP in condemning US germ warfare and the mass murder of two million civilians in the Korean war. For sending reports from the wrong side of the Korean divide, Daily Worker journalist Alan Winnington was banned from returning home for 14 years. Broader alliances were possible in the battle against plans to rearm West Germany and admit it to the NATO alliance.
Communist women played a major part alongside the Quakers in collecting more than a million signatures for the Stockholm Peace Petition, which urged the major powers to ban all nuclear weapons. They also proposed to the International Women's Day Committee that a National Assembly for Women be convened in March 1953.
Under the Party's international secretary Palme Dutt, assisted by former Daily Worker editor Idris Cox, a network of sub-committees produced regular bulletins on developments in different parts of the world. The Irish Democrat, published by the Connolly Association and guided by the CP in Britain, sold thousands of copies monthly, notably to Irish building workers, Dockers and car workers.
Many thousands of Party members were active trade unionists as required by Party rules, often occupying key positions as shop stewards, convenors, branch and district officers and full-time officials at district and national level. Industrial organiser Peter Kerrigan impressed on them the need to win the respect of workmates by being efficient in their job and conscientious in fulfilling their trade union responsibilities. Such an approach, combined with the re-emergence of economic downturns and oppressive management, helped Communists to combat Cold War prejudices within the trade union movement.
Whole sections of the trade union movement were effectively under Communist influence, despite bans on Communists holding office in the Transport & General Workers Union, the steel union and in local Trades Councils. Party members were prominent at national level in the National Union of Mineworkers, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Fire Brigades Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Building Workers Union and several smaller ones. The Scottish and Welsh coalfields and the Yorkshire, Lancashire and Clydeside engineering districts were dominated by Communist officials and rank-and-file activists, as were the London docks and many big car factories in the Midlands and south-east England.
Union offices staffed by the most experienced and durable Party militants, whether in vehicle plants or coal mining communities, were often referred to by workers, bosses and state bureaucrats alike as 'the Kremlin'.
The Party's cutting edge was felt most keenly in the big factories, mines and mills where it had about five hundred workplace branches. Here were the party's 'shock troops', playing a leading role in strikes such as those Rolls Royce, Brigg's and Austin Motors, resisting assembly line speed-ups and demanding more rewards for the workers responsible for higher productivity.
'Every factory a fortress' ran the slogan and Napier's (Acton), Metro-Vickers (Trafford Park), Fairey Aviation (Stockport) and Austin Aero (near Longbridge) boasted CP memberships of two hundred and more, selling at least as many copies of the Daily Worker in every plant every day. Not confining themselves to traditional trade union concerns, they engaged in political education and action including election campaigns.
The Young Communists led a new round of strikes in the shipyards and engineering works, attracting the attention of the Economic League with its spying activities on behalf of the Engineering Employers Federation.
The Communist Party women's department led by Nora Jeffery organised initiatives to defend jobs in the clothing and textile industry and to step up the battle for equal pay, where notable progress was made in the public sector. Many of the Party's two hundred women's sections campaigned against rising prices and for greater nursery, education and housing provision. However, the monthly sales of Woman Today were patchy and its finances always precarious.
In many local communities, when the Tories removed rent controls and security of tenure, the Party's area branches organised tenants in mass campaigns. In October 1955, in Crawley new town for instance, thousands of housing corporation tenants refused to pay rent, while factory workers downed tools to join protest marches.
On the ideological and cultural front, the CP waged the battle of ideas with vigour and imagination. A series of national conferences proclaimed the case for indigenous and working class culture in place of the 'degenerate' products of US monopoly capitalism with their pessimism, cynicism and gratuitous violence.
But a tendency to impose orthodoxy fragmented the Engels Society, where Haldane and other scientists had disputed the theories of Soviet geneticist Lysenko. Professor Bernal, on the other hand, participated prominently in the Science for Peace committee and the World Peace Council before writing his influential work Science in History (1956).
In a series of classic books and articles Dona Torr, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Dorothy and EP Thompson, Margot Heinemann, Eric Hobsbawm and Noreen Branson reclaimed British history for the working class. They launched the prestigious journal Past and Present and the CP history group published a ground-breaking bulletin, Our History.
The Party writers' group helped produce periodicals such as Our Time and Arena. Literary giants Pablo Neruda and Dylan Thomas were among the contributors.
Celebrated Welsh and Scots poets TE Nicholas and Hugh MacDiarmid were equally well known in their respective countries as members of the Communist Party.
The Unity Theatre movement confused the censorship authorities by its use of agitprop and improvisation. It nurtured actors such as Lionel Bart, Alfie Bass, Michael Redgrave, Bill Owen, Herbert Lom, Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell, some of whom joined the Party. Producers Ivor Montagu and Stanley Forman made films for the labour movement.
Communists helped launch an international campaign to restore his US passport to black singer and actor Paul Robeson. He enjoyed a special relationship with the Welsh miners led by Party members such as Will Paynter and Dai Dan Evans.
Folk and jazz was the music of choice for many comrades, reflecting the mixture of traditionalism and avant guardism that characterised their Party. Communist folk singers Ewan McColl and Hamish Henderson provided the imagination—and organiser Martin Milligan the drive—to establish the Edinburgh People's Festival in 1951, alongside the city's international festival of the arts. Its inaugural week of events featured plays, poetry, lectures, Gaelic songs and an address by Communist miners' leader Abe Moffat.
Although administered by a broad labour-movement based committee, the People's Festival was soon proscribed as a 'Communist front' by the Scottish TUC and the Scottish Labour Party. It survived until 1954, later to be reincarnated as the Edinburgh Fringe.