The Communist Party received 947 votes in this year’s election. But the true significance of the party is as the visible remainder of a tremendously important political and social force. Among those who used to carry the membership card are well-established cultural figures like Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, political commentators of today (David Aaronovitch, Seumas Milne), and, of course, a quartet of major historians – Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, E.P Thompson and A.J.P. Taylor – who really did believe that Marx had definitively answered the great questions.

So, I ask Robert Griffiths, the current leader of the party, what happened to communism. It was partly the decline of traditional industries, he says, and partly the infighting which distracted and weakened the party.

But the ruling classes were to blame, too. “Cold War propaganda really was enormous and intense,” he tells me. “We compounded that by some of the mistaken decisions that we as a party took. There was the failure to make a proper, deep analysis of everything that went wrong in the Stalin period.”

Griffiths, a lifelong socialist, joined the Communist Party in 1984. “I became persuaded over time that we need a party that is based explicitly on, and dedicates itself to, the fight for socialism.” He is right to say that many of the party’s policies are not so far from the mainstream: their ‘10 points for the Shadow Cabinet’ include strengthening the equal pay laws and investing in renewable energy.

But there is a problem with the word communist: “Yes,” Griffiths chuckldedes, “so I hear.” At the debate at the Union in which he has just been speaking, the other side could raise a laugh just by mentioning that Griffiths is a communist. Maybe it’s time to drop the name.

The problem, he says, “is that once you start going down that road, where do you stop? Maybe you should drop the word socialist… You end up a pale pink imitation of what you once were.”

Griffiths argues that, although most people doubt the virtues of communism, they are hardly any more enthusiastic about capitalism. Communists must make the case, he says, that “what we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was the first attempt to build socialist societies, in very adverse conditions, not in the circumstances we would have chosen. Nevertheless, the opportunity was there and those parties had to do the best in the circumstances.”

Griffiths gets impatient with opponents who bring up Stalin. “The international communist movement dropped its association with Stalin in 1956.” Does he really mean to say that Stalin has nothing to do with communism? “I’m saying the communist movement made an assessment of Stalin’s role, including its enormously negative features, in 1956.”

To Griffiths’ credit, this is the only time in our conversation when he gives the politician’s stonewalling non-answer. It is true that, like so many Marxists, his conversation is limited by the very narrow and exact circle in which every idea has to move. Still, he is earnest, open, occasionally and disconcertingly self-deprecating. So would anyone be, you may retort, if they were on 947 votes. But then Griffiths has a difficult record to defend.

Communism’s dependency on violence does not begin with Stalin. It is there from the start in the disturbing rhetoric of The Communist Manifesto. And it is there, overwhelmingly, in the life and writings of Lenin. In a speech earlier this year, Griffiths advised that “whether communists are supporting Labour, Communist or other left candidates, we should conduct that work in a Leninist way.”

Surely, I say to Griffiths, it’s better to leave Lenin alone. “Lenin played a vital role at a pivotal point in the history of Russia,” he replies. “He rescued Russia from anarchy, from despotism, from discrimination against minorities.”

Less arguably, Lenin also shut down the press, founded the Gulag, and set up the secret police, the Cheka, who in 1918-19 averaged well over 1,000 executions per month.

Lenin had explained: “We’ll ask the man, where do you stand on the question of the revolution? Are you for it or against it? If he’s against it, we’ll stand him up against a wall.” This exemplary communist has blood on his hands. “Um, well” – Griffiths sighs, then regroups impressively – “I don’t think he’s got quite as much blood on his hands as some recent British prime ministers and so on.”

Come on, he’s a bad figure to be associated with. “Well – no I don’t – well, that’s, that would be...” – again, he recovers – “that was certainly the assessment of the British ruling class when he nationalised all of the assets in Russia.”

It is worth remembering that until recently the British intellectual elite made these kinds of excuses all the time. Some of them still do.

Griffiths is sceptical about the ‘cultural Marxism’ movement, which fought for feminism and environmentalism, and against the traditional family, and which has been communism’s biggest success in Britain.

The cultural Marxists, sometimes known by the oddly sleazy term ‘Eurocommunists’, claimed to take their cue from Antonio Gramsci. In Griffiths’ view, “they rather distorted and misrepresented Gramsci’s ideas.

“Insofar as some of the elements within the Eurocommunist trend were raising these questions, particularly about women, they were raising important questions. But they were raising these questions a) For the wrong reasons, and b) In order to put forward completely wrong solutions.”

In particular, the Eurocommunists neglected the class divide. “They raised feminism to say, this shows how the politics of class are now irrelevant. It’s now the politics of gender, and the politics of sexuality, and the politics of the environment that have taken over.”

So they have, and the militant labourism which Griffiths represents has been left behind. But communist ideas only seem frightening when they are in power, and as long as Robert Griffiths is a million miles from power I can’t help but like him. He is only a quiet, pious believer, in the midst of the long decline of a religion which has had its great fanatics.