Gordon McLennan, the penultimate general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), died from cancer on 21 May at the age of 87. The 15 years during which he led what had once been the revolutionary vanguard of the British working class were ones in which the party expelled and excluded hundreds of its remaining working class militants and saw its influence steadily decline as its policies became more and more revisionist and anti-working class. One year after he resigned the leadership, the party ignominiously dissolved itself, declaring the Great October Socialist Revolution to have been a “mistake of historic proportions”.
McLennan was born in Glasgow and grew up amidst that city’s vibrant working class traditions. He joined the Young Communist League at the age of 15, following his father into the Clyde shipyards at the same age, and served on its executive committee between 1942-47.
Following his apprenticeship, McLennan became an engineering draughtsman, but his talents as an organiser and speaker soon saw him take up full-time party work. He became Glasgow organiser, city secretary, Scottish organiser, and, in 1956, Scottish secretary, being elected to the party’s executive committee the following year. From 1966-1975, he was the CPGB’s national organiser, taking over as general secretary when his predecessor John Gollan was diagnosed with cancer.
By the time McLennan assumed the leadership of the party it had already travelled far from its revolutionary origins. The Marxist-Leninist teachings on the state had been thrown overboard in favour of the parliamentary cretinism of the ‘British Road to Socialism’, which sees the imperialist Labour Party as a vehicle for socialist change. With a renewed upsurge in the national liberation struggle of the Irish people, the CPGB slandered the heroic fight of the Republican movement as “terrorism” and refused to campaign for the withdrawal of British troops. In the great struggle against modern revisionism, the CPGB had supported the incorrect positions adopted by the leaders of the Soviet party and state following the death of Comrade Stalin and actively opposed the courageous anti-revisionist fight put up by the Chinese and Albanian comrades. From the early 1960s, hundreds of Marxist-Leninists and anti-revisionists had been summarily expelled from the party.
As a result, McLennan inherited a party in crisis. It was torn by bitter and open factionalism that pitted a group known as Eurocommunists, who wished to finally jettison the party’s remaining ties to the socialist countries and the working class, and, on the other hand, a somewhat eclectic group of comrades, of varying political levels, for whom these final steps were steps too far.
To the consternation of many of his long-time friends and comrades, McLennan backed, albeit with some reservations, the Eurocommunist liquidators, who proceeded to launch a ruthless purge of their critics, including such leading trade unionists and lifelong party members as Ken Gill and Derek Robinson.
In 1988 many of these comrades formed the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), ostensibly on the basis of Marxism-Leninism. However, like the infamous Bourbon dynasty, it can be said that they had ‘forgotten nothing and learned nothing’. The CPB was founded, and essentially continues, on what it calls the “Marxist-Leninist programme” of the CPGB, blithely ignoring the very obvious fact that this programme is emphatically not Marxist-Leninist but thoroughly revisionist and social democratic, that it was responsible for the demise of the CPGB and, if not corrected, will surely do for the CPB, too, sooner or later. Today, in Britain, the banner of the truly revolutionary CPGB that once existed is carried forward only by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
In 1990, McLennan ceded the leadership of his party to Nina Temple, who soon openly declared what should have been long since evident to one and all, namely that she had never been a Marxist. The following year, the CPGB finally met its end, reforming itself as an outfit called Democratic Left, which itself disappeared after a few utterly forgettable years.
McLennan, however, refused to join Democratic Left and instead joined the Communist Party of Scotland, which seeks to combine revisionism with Scottish nationalism. He also became a highly active member of the pensioners’ movement, joining the executive of the National Pensioners Convention and chairing his local south London branch. He was often to be seen on demonstrations, shouting slogans or delivering speeches through a megaphone, and once led a lie-down protest in Westminster against the Labour government’s attack on pensions. He was also active in the anti-war movement and gave some support to George Galloway’s Respect party.
All this, it must be said, was in stark contrast to many of those he supported in the dying days of the CPGB, who disappeared completely from the field of class struggle. It might also be said that he made a lot better pensions activist than he did communist leader. In the end, the tragedy of McLennan’s life, and the lesson for us all, was that this once promising and talented working class militant, under the deadly influence of revisionism, ended up contributing in no small measure to the destruction of the very party to which he had devoted his life.