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On Choosing to Not to be a Hack


by Bob Potter


[Reprinted under the title "Special Work" in The Left in Britain 1956-1968, edited by David Widgery]


Reading M. B.'s review of Ultra-Leftism in Britain, by Betty Reid, reminded me of some experiences I had in the Communist Party twelve to fifteen years ago.


I had joined the CP in 1952 as a member of Clapham North Branch. The Secretary was a civil servant named Douglas Moncrieff. Filled with the enthusiasm of all new recruits, I was equally active in the YCL, and was soon to be elected Secretary of the Wandsworth Branch.


For several years I was one of the few stalwarts who kept the organization going, planning the weekly branch meetings, distributing literature, speaking on street corners, etc., etc.


Early in 1954 Douglas Moncrieff approached me regarding some `special work' for the Party. He had been co-opted on to a secret security committee, headed by Betty Reid, and answerable only to the Party Secretariat. Its job was to investigate alleged increasing Trotskyite infiltration.


I was asked to go to the open-air meetings held each Saturday afternoon on Clapham Common, especially those addressed by one John Burns (yes, the one and only G. H.), and take a series of photographs of the audience. The exposed films would be sent to King Street for developing, and I would be re-imbursed for the cost of the films.


The object of the exercise was never detailed. I declined.


A year later I joined London Transport as a bus conductor and was posted to Battersea Garage. Within weeks an industrial branch of the CP had been formed, with myself as secretary. Within six months we had ten members, were producing a monthly six-page bulletin, which sold over one hundred copies each edition, and I was running as a Communist candidate in the local elections, sponsored by the bus branch.


At that year's Area Conference (I don't think the same local organization functions today) the Area Secretary, Joe Bent, singled out Battersea Garage bus group as a shining example for all to follow.


Meanwhile, there was considerable dissension in the Party nationally on the issue of democratic centralism. Comrades at all levels were complaining of the lack of open discussions. The dissatisfaction was such that the leadership was forced to act, and a special commission was set up to inquire into `Inner-Party Democracy'. All were encouraged to submit statements to the commission. 'Address your comments to the Commission Chairman, Betty Reid!'


To me, the appointment of Betty Reid, Chief of the Secret Security Committee, to a responsible post on this particular body was a blatant insult to the membership. I put this point of view to the bus branch, and we passed a unanimous resolution demanding the removal of Betty Reid. Together with Fred Whelton, I was instructed to carry this resolution to the next Area Committee meeting.


The Area Committee agreed the matter should be placed on the agenda of the next Area membership meeting.


HHThen, at the eleventh hour we were approached by Peter Maxwell, Area Chairman. The matter had been re-discussed by the 'Area Secretariat', who had referred the matter to Party Centre (in the person of Bill Laughlan). To hold a public discussion on the Party Security Organization would do irreparable damage to the Party. Permission to discuss it before the Area membership was withdrawn, and we were warned against trying to raise it under 'any other business'.


Fred and I reported back to the bus branch. We all resigned from the Communist Party.


A month or two later the workers of Budapest took up arms against their Betty Reids, and all over the world millions more left the ranks. But apparently Betty Reid goes marching on with her ever decreasing little band of followers.


(From Solidarity, Vol. 6, No. 2, 13 November 1969)