Published: This is published by kind permission of the author Prof. John McIlroy and is from Keith Gildart, David Howell eds Dictionary of Labour Biography, vol xii, 2005, pp 106-19.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2013 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
Copyright: Prof. John McIlroy and the Dictionary of Labour Biography
Reg Groves was born on 16 April 1908 in Clacton, Essex, the eldest of the six children of Percy Groves and his wife Dora (née Canler). His father and grandfather were both policemen, and his mother’s parents, Philip and Frances Canler, kept an ironmonger’s shop in Clacton. His parents moved to London, leaving him with the Canlers, but the family were soon reunited in the metropolis, where they lived in the Sandringham Buildings at the back of Charing Cross Road. As a boy, Groves experienced working-class London, the southern seaside and rural Essex, for he often stayed with the Canlers. The latter were nineteenth-century radicals who bred in him a love of the countryside and a sympathy for the long tradition of struggle by rural workers. He always credited them with sowing in his young mind the seeds of socialism.
When Groves was 14 he left St Martin-in-the-Fields School, Holborn, where he had acquired a love of Shakespeare to complement his passion for Charlie Chaplin, and took an a succession of temporary jobs: messenger boy, railway porter, farm labourer, sports groundsman and Post Office engineering apprentice. He was the only member of his family to take an interest in politics. In 1924 he joined the Westminster branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), but it was the prelude to the general strike and his induction into Militant Christian socialism that made him become an activist.
His parents were not religious, although Philip Canler was a Methodist lay preacher. Primary influences on his new allegiance, perhaps inspired more by socialism than Christianity, were the Australian-born clergyman St John Groser (1890-1966) and his brother-in-law, Jack Bucknall (1888-4954), both of whom were Anglo-Catholic curates at St Michael’s in Bromley-by-Bow and adherents of the Catholic Crusade, established by the revolutionary vicar of Thaxted, Conrad Noel, in 1918 to further the Anglo-Catholic movement and win the Church to socialism. They worked with George Lansbury, collaborated with the Communist Party (CPGB) and; in accordance with the philosophy of the Thaxted movement, were deeply involved in socialist causes across London. The movement, which stood on the left of the Christian socialist spectrum despite its High Church provenance, had some tradition in London churches near Groves’ home, such as St George’s in Bloomsbury and St Mary’s in Somers Town, as well as St Michael’s. Through discussion meetings in Groser’s rooms in Teviot Street, Poplar, he was drawn into the Catholic Crusade. It was in Groser’s rooms that in early 1925 he met a group of Christian socialists who were active in the trade unions.
He became close to Stewart Purkis, Billy Williams, Bert Field and Ruby Rayner, all of whom were members of the Clearing House branch of the Railway Clerks’ Association and worked in Somers Town, not far from his home. The 40-year-old Purkis (1885-1969) had been a socialist since 1904, a disciple of Noel since his days in the Christian Social League early in the century and secretary of the Catholic Crusade. A dynamic, dapper, gnome of a man who sustained trade unionism among the railway clerical elite and added more than a dash of militancy to it, Purkis came to have a significant influence on Groves. Encouraged by Groser, Bucknall and Purkis, he read voraciously and haunted Henderson’s ‘bomb shop’, the Charing Cross Road book store — with its red and gold décor painted by Walter Crane — that played a role in shaping successive generations of socialists. Guided by them, he visited Thaxted. Its beauty and the magic of its rituals and pageantry, plainsong, folk singing and morris dancing reinforced his new faith. It deepened his lifelong concern with the relevance of socialism to rural workers. Noel, who had been a member of the British Socialist Party and involved in the ferment over the creation of the CPGB in 1920-21, remained an enduring inspiration.
Groves was also interested in cultural matters. In April 1926 a letter was published in the CPGB’s broad left weekly, the Sunday Worker, from ‘Reginald P. Groves’ criticising the party Journalist Charles Ashleigh’s review of Miles Malleson’s play Conflict at the Queen’s Theatre. What Ashleigh wanted from art, Groves claimed, was crude lessons in revolution. Effective drama, in contrast, demanded evocation of uncertainty, complexity and the dilemmas workers faced in confronting capitalism and developing socialist politics [Groves (1926)]. On 1 May 1926 Groves presented Purkis with a copy of Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? Suitably fortified, they plunged into the general strike. The 18-year-old Groves organised gatherings of strikers at St Mary’s, Somers Town, and participated in Groser’s meetings in South London. He shared the exhilaration of witnessing the blackcoated aristocrats of the Clearing House walk out to join the strike. He shared the bitterness of defeat, the beating of Groser by the police, the victimisation of union activists and the pressures placed by the Church of England on its socialist clergy: both Groser and Bucknall were eventually removed from St Michael’s and Rowland Jones from St. Mary’s. Events vindicated his feeling that the Church had let the workers down, his critical estimation of the Labour Party and his positive impression of the CPGB. Convinced of the necessity of Leninism, he joined the CPGB in 1927, along with fellow Crusaders Purkis, Williams and James Desormeaux. His father believed that having a Communist son could cause him problems in the police force and asked him to leave home.
There has been some controversy over whether Groves maintained his Christianity during his years in the communist and Trotskyist movements. He certainly maintained an ethical approach and a sharp sense of equity, a vision of how life should be lived and relationships conducted, which caused him difficulties in the CPGB. The best view is that whatever went on inside his heart, he was no longer a pledged, still less a practising Christian. Criticising Jack Bucknall in the CPGB press in 1928, Groves’ fellow former Crusaders emphasised that it was impossible to be a Christian and CPGB member. This was certainly the conclusion of the party leadership when they refused Bucknall’s application for membership two years later. At that time Groves himself criticised the Crusade in the pages of the Daily Worker. None of his comrades saw any evidence of adherence to Christianity after 1927. While he continued his close relationship with Purkis and maintained his friendship with Bucknall, Noel and Groser were succeeded as guiding lights by the austere Militant atheist, the CPGB theorist Rajani Palme Dutt, whose Labour Monthly he had first read on Bucknall’s recommendation. His vision of heaven on earth now centred on a soviet Britain.
He was initially a member of the Westminster group of the CPGB, and it was there that he met his future wife, Daisy Cox. Born in Blackfriars in London on 28 August 1908, Daisy was apprenticed to a Soho tailor and became an activist in the elfte West End cutters’ branch of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union. She joined the CPGB in 1926 and — together with her elder sister, Nell, and her brother-in-law, the Irish bricklayer Steve Dowdall — became active in the party and subsequently in the Trotskyist movement. By 1929 Groves and Daisy were living together and they were married on 27 February 1932. They lived in East London and were members of the Bethnal Green branch of the CPGB before moving to South London, where they joined the Battersea branch.
Groves was preoccupied by the significance of 1926. This strengthened his interest in labour history, particularly in the lessons of the Chartist movement for working-class independence and revolutionary opportunity. He came to share Dutt’s view that the CPGB had to terminate its role as the protesting left wing of the labour movement and project itself as an independent, revolutionary alternative. He initially supported the intervention of the Communist International (Comintern) to correct the ‘right-wing’ policies of the CPGB leadership and purge recalcitrants. Dutt was always prepared to promote right-thinking party activists. He corresponded with the born-again Groves, who met the prescription of the zealous young worker whom Dutt’s masters in Moscow were intent on grooming for leadership.
By 1928 Groves was a party speaker and worked on Dutt’s Labour Monthly. By 1929 he was a member of the London District Committee, assistant to the organiser, R.W. Robson, prominent on the Central Agit-Prop Committee and author of the CPGB pamphlet on the Labour Party commissioned for the 1929 general election. In the party press he enunciated the ultra-left politics of the ‘third period’ with a vigour that owed much to Dutt’s ‘Notes of the Month’ in Labour Monthly. Confronted by economic crisis, the workers were thwarted by ‘a single unbroken front of employers and trade Union leaders from Lord Melchett to A.J. Cook’. Faced with union incorporation, ‘the only basis for our work is the factory. The key to a mechanised army lies in the factory.’ Socialists must refuse to pay the political levy to the Labour Party, reject ‘reformist discipline in the unions’ and lead strikes in defiance of them. There was a need for the CPGB to fight for a revolutionary workers’ government, renew its leadership and establish an illegal apparatus [Groves (July 1929) 412-14; Groves (November 1929) 604-9]. He attended the November 1929 CPGB congress in Leeds, which accepted the new line of class against class, armed with Dutt’s personal assurance that he was executing the mission of the Comintern. He was prominent in insisting that the decline of the party had to be confronted, that its provenance lay in its ‘right-wing’ direction, and that a new leadership was ‘the supreme issue’.
By 1930 Groves was an up-and-coming force. He was an effective speaker and writer, with contributions published in the Daily Worker, the Communist, Communist Review and Labour Monthly. He engaged with contemporary issues, but also with working-class history, where he pondered the relevance of Chartism to contemporary struggle. In the summer of 1929 the CPGB had asked him to go to Russia to work for the Comintern and then take up a place at the International Lenin School in Moscow. He had declined, believing that the battle in Britain and the party’s difficulties took priority. In 1930 he was briefly on the staff of the Daily Worker. He emulated Dutt in criticising the paper for its limited ability to reflect working-class problems and its preponderance of assertion over fact and argument.
As ‘Plowman’, in April 1930 he launched the ‘Workers’ Notebook’, which would become one of the paper’s enduring features. However he came into conflict with the editors over their failure to publish his column regularly and their propensity to alter his copy. He appealed to the secretariat, but the party leadership backed the editorial board, insisting on its right and duty to correct ‘mistaken formulations’ and ‘incorrect conclusions’. In response he suspended his contributions.
Groves was labelled a capricious critic. Dissatisfaction with his treatment mingled with political disillusionment. The new leadership had failed to reverse the party’s decline into a sect that was as ‘bureaucratic’ as its predecessor. His historical studies were a solace. As an admirer of David Riazanov’s work at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, he inquired about employment in London. Instead Riazanov offered him a job in Moscow, helping to prepare Marx’s English works for publication and undertaking research into the nineteenth-century British labour movement. He wanted to go but the CPGB leadership, remembering his earlier reluctance to work in Russia, withheld their permission.
His disenchantment hardened during the rest of 1930. He talked with Purkis, Williams, Henry Sara (who had joined their discussions in the Express Dairies Café near Euston), Harry Wicks (whom he had met when both were found work by the party at Russian Oil Products) and the former Comintern functionary, George Weston. They remained adherents of the politics of 1929. They underestimated the extent to which the Comintern was now emphasising ‘the left danger’ as well as ‘the right danger’. However their solidarity as a group was strengthened when Purkis was branded as ‘a theoretician of left sectarianism’, essentially for affirming Dutt’s insistence on the need to politicise economic struggles, and when Groves was criticised by the leadership for raising the question of councils of action during the August crisis of 1931, a position that however wrongheaded would have been unexceptionable in the aftermath of the Leeds congress. Their confidence was boosted when Groves attracted support from the Nine Elms Concentration Group, which worked around a large rail depot, produced the Nine Elms Spark and in autumn 1931, with shifts in the small south-west London membership, became the Balham Group of the CPGB.
The Opposition centred on south-west London and the St Pancras branch, initially represented a defence of the apogee of the ‘third period’. But in the spring of 1931 Groves had his first significant encounter with Trotskyism. In Henderson’s bookshop he discovered the literature of the Communist League of America (CLA), a section of the International Left Opposition (ILO). On Purkis’s account, the former Catholic Crusaders had been uneasy about the CPGB’s condemnation of Trotsky and the United Opposition in 1928, but had felt unequipped to judge the issues. Doubts continued over developments in Russia and China. By 1930 the group had become acutely concerned with the Comintern’s sectarian prohibition of a united front between communist and social democratic parties and its emphasis on the ineffectual ‘united front from below’. Daisy Groves later recalled her husband’s Opposition to the official line on China in 1928, while Harry Wicks recollected that the development of the theory of social fascism — fascism and social democracy were twins — united the emerging Opposition. But there is no hard evidence that Groves and his comrades had grasped the rudiments of the ILO’s politics before Groves circulated the American Militant.
Now, however, they placed the development of fascism in Germany, the urgent need for a united front and criticism of the Comintern and ‘socialism in one country’ at the heart of their developing politics. Groves contacted the CLA and by autumn 1931 he was writing under a pseudonym in its paper, the Militant, and had commenced a correspondence with Trotsky in Turkey. With his comrades, he held meetings in London with the CLA youth leader, Albert Glotzer, and the gifted American Trotskyist, Max Shachtman. This culminated in the formation in December 1931 of the British Group of the ILO, which would act as a clandestine faction inside the CPGB. There was little political discussion and less clarification. He had his doubts but he swallowed them. By May 1932 the group had published the first issue of the Communist, devoted to Trotsky’s writings on Germany.
Groves’ leading role in the group’s initiatives, his lack of tactical acumen and his ultra-left purism on the trade union question enabled the leadership to stamp the opposition with a sectarian label. The ‘January resolution’, hammered out in Moscow by the leaders of the Comintern and the CPGB, reaffirmed that while the union apparatus remained irredeemable, ‘the lower organs’, specifically the union branches, could be transformed into ‘organs of class struggle’. In a statement drafted by Groves and published in the Daily Worker in April 1931, the Balham Group criticised the resolution for its neglect of Germany and the Far East, and asserted the primacy of factory and job organisation in the industrial struggle. The leadership responded that there would be no change in policy. The unions could not be transformed; given the relationship of factory to branch, it was possible to win workers at lower levels from the bureaucracy. This was an argument within ultra-leftism, but the January resolution had the better of it. Groves’ persistence and a further exchange in May enabled the leadership to saddle the group with an abstentionist position on work in union branches. In reality they zealously carried on such work and Purkis’s activities in the Railway Clerks’ Association were covered in the CPGB press. But Groves’ formulations were disowned by Dutt, criticised in the Communist International and disapproved of by Shachtman.
The Americans had urged that one member of the British group should be offered up for expulsion as a focal point around which to organise open opposition. But the heat was already on all protagonists. The Balham Group defended their positions in two south-west London aggregates, losing the vote by a modest 22 to 16. They were condemned by the London leadership and Groves was indicted for accusing the leadership of political cowardice. At that point they implemented the ‘sacrifice’ stratagem. But the publication in July 1932 of Purkis’s ‘Open Letter to Harry Pollitt’, which expounded the politics of the ILO, provoked not only his expulsion but also the identification of the rest of the group with Trotskyism. There was one small success. Through its work with ILP members the group had created a strong Anti-War Committee in south-west London. Their resolution mandating the sending of a delegate to the forthcoming World Anti-War Congress was commended by the Daily Worker. It was only days later that a furious J.R. Campbell noticed its Trotskyist sentiments, and its warning that the only antidote to war and the safeguarding of the Soviet Union was world revolution.
By that time the die was cast. After interrogation by Pollitt and Gallacher, Groves was expelled on 17 August 1932. Further expulsions and the liquidation' of the Balham Group followed. Groves was refused the right to appeal to the party’s November congress, where Pollitt expressed his ‘contempt, hatred and loathing for the miserable gang of counter-revolutionaries’.
Groves found it difficult to pass from factionalism inside an established organisation to the leadership of a tiny group that was persecuted by former comrades and branded as fascist. The ex-CPGB members were augmented by recruits from the ILP, a circle of students at the London School of Economics and a trickle of expelled Communists. The loyal Jack Bucknall took up their cause in the Catholic Crusader. The group never had more than 50 members and it was confined to London. Groves became absorbed in unavoidable arguments over whether they should constitute themselves as a propaganda group, publishing Trotsky’s writings and directing themselves to revolutionaries, primarily the CPGB; whether they should prioritise day-to-day activity in the British labour movement; or, perhaps more pertinently, how they could combine these two approaches.
Groves was a British, or more precisely an English, activist who wanted to influence what happened in England. He was disillusioned with the Comintern and perhaps the least enthusiastic of those in the opposition about the link with the ILO. His evocation of attendance at an ILO gathering in February 1933 suggests his ambivalence: ‘A reluctant delegate, I travelled to Paris and sat through complex and heavily jargonised discussions in French and German’. The outcome was ‘an aching head and jaded spirits’ [Groves (1974) 74]. His attempts to exercise ‘hegemony’, as he put it, within the group brought him into conflict with Purkis and Wicks over his prioritising of activity in the labour movement and of ‘British materials’, as against the development of theoretical education. His opponents counselled against impatience and parochialism. They recalled his intemperate criticism of the CPGB leaders and his leftism over the trade union issue. Nonetheless, during 1933 the group produced six issues of the Communist, launched the Red Flag, which was addressed largely to the revolutionary left, and in June, declared itself the Communist League, British Section International Left Opposition.
In August 1933 the ILO urged the League to augment its forces by entering the ILP. The old CPGB group closed ranks. They resisted Trotsky’s subsequent attempts to persuade them that they could win the ILP’s revolutionary core and inoculate the whole party against Stalinism, and asserted the need for independent organisation. There was an element of Communist hauteur towards the pedestrian ILP, as well as a keen appreciation of its limitations. The new recruits proved more susceptible to the view that the League could not sustain itself as an independent organisation. The old guard won the day. But the minority’s refusal to accept the vote and the ILO’s subsequent decision to sanction their entry into the ILP increased Groves’ disillusionment with international Trotskyism.
During 1934 he allowed formal contact with Trotsky and the ILO to slip away. He saw this as no great loss. But the League was beset with further infighting. Purkis had had enough and returned to the church. Trotsky observed, ‘the majority finds itself in a state of constant internal strife …. certain leaders have left the organisation altogether’ [Trotsky (1971) 64]. Groves proposed critical support for a Labour government and a new approach towards the Labour Party as the CPGB’s turn away from isolation towards alliances gathered momentum, undermining the appeal of Trotskyism. When Groves was disqualified as a delegate to the 1934 Labour Party conference because of his connections with the Communist League, the group agreed to reorganise for more effective entry. It resurfaced as the Marxist League. Groves declared that the League would ‘work loyally as an integral part of the labour movement’. It would now operate as ‘an association of Labour Party members, Trade Unionists and Co-operators, organised together for the study of Marxism, the training of Marxist leaders and the advocacy of Marxist policy and principles in the Labour Movement’ [Sara-Maitland Papers, MSS15/4/1/5, Aims and Objects of the Marxist League, n.d. (1934)]
Work in the Labour Party came easily to him and he acted as agent for Andrew Campbell in Guildford in the 1935 general election. He prioritised activity in the Socialist League, established in 1932 by traditional Labour intellectuals and left wing activists who did not wish to follow the ILP out of the party. In 1935 its leading personalities were Sir Stafford Cripps, William Mellor and its ex-Communist general secretary, J.T. Murphy. Groves became London area secretary and represented London on the National Council. He spoke extensively at its meetings and was a regular contributor to its paper, the Socialist. The Marxist League used the Socialist League as a means to distribute the literature of the Spanish Partido de Unificación Marxista (POUM), an organisation led by Andrés Nin and influenced by Trotsky, although he had broken with his supporters in the party. In 1935-36 the Socialist League published three pamphlets by Groves on fascism, socialism and war, and trades councils.
Believing the foundations had been laid for more vigorous activity, he re-established contact with Trotsky and requested his support for the relaunch of the Red Flag in May 1936. Trotsky was scathing about the League’s failure to raise revolutionary politics inside the Labour Party and judged it ‘a vague centrist trend’. He relented when the League insisted that it still accepted the policy and principles of the movement for the Fourth International and promised discussions with the Trotskyist Marxist Group in the ILP. But Groves firmly rebuffed Trotsky’s criticism of work in the Socialist League and refused to bind his Organisation to the discipline of the ILO whose leaders believed that Groves only wanted to utilise Trotsky’s prestige and had no intention of accepting international discipline. Some British Trotskyists agreed: ‘He did not highlight the historic role of Trotskyism or of the Left Opposition … when the Communists wanted to attack him they could present his association with Trotsky as something sinister and underhand’ [Archer (2001) 256].
Yet he was prepared to stand on principle and put his neck on the Hock. He opposed the unity negotiations between the CPGB, ILP and Socialist League in January 1937. The CPGB’s strategy, he claimed, given the near certainty of the League’s proscription by Labour’s leaders should it sign a unity agreement, was to remove a competitor on its left and strengthen its own campaign for affiliation to the Labour Party. For him the CPGB’s insistence that eschewal of criticism of the Soviet Union by the ILP and Socialist League should be a precondition for any pact was unacceptable. He was concerned about the minimal consultation the League’s leaders afforded their members. When the League’s conference on 17 January failed to ratify the accord by an overall majority, he circulated branches with a criticism of the National Council and the agreement.
The national press carried front-page coverage of his statement. The Daily Worker immediately accused him of ‘allowing his materials to be placed at the disposal of the Daily Herald’, going on to inform readers: ‘Groves is a Trotskyist. In the Soviet Union Trotskyism organises the murder of the leaders of the Communist Party and acts as the agent of the secret police of Hitler’ [Daily Worker, 18 January 1937]. He responded by denying that he had had any contact with the Herald. He affirmed that the CPGB’s allegations were ‘without an atom of truth’. The Socialist League, he averred, had been recruited into a conspiracy of silence about the misdoings of the Russian government … A Party with nothing to hide will not object to the criticisms of working class opponents. The agreement denies the right of free criticism, either of the parties concerned, or of their personnel, or of the actions and policies of the Soviet government' [Red Flag, February 1937, p.3].
Only a handful of disembodied sentences from his response to the Daily Worker were published, set in a vehement commentary that concluded the onus was on Groves to prove his innocence. The persecution continued with contributions from Pollitt and John Strachey — then campaigning for free speech in the Labour Party. The latter prefaced his condemnation of Groves with the considered observation: ‘all over the world the Trotsky organisations are in close touch with the Fascists’ [Daily Worker, 22 January 1937].
After the dissolution of the Socialist League, Groves unsuccessfully attempted to create a successor, the Socialist Left Federation. In October 1937 the Marxist League itself was wound up. The majority of the members, led by Wicks, were determined to continue in the Trotskyist movement and fuse with the Marxist Group, led by C.L.R. James. Years later Groves felt that at last he had the courage of his convictions. Life in the Trotskyist movement demanded a harsh hyperactivism and a dedication to intensive political disputation. It imposed restricted horizons; for most leaders it ended in burn-out. He knew Shakespeare better than he knew Marx. He had felt for some time that he did not want to spend the rest of his life arguing with other Trotskyists within the purism, introversion and factionalism of small group culture. He was depressed by the Moscow trials and the resilience of Stalinism. Fundamentally, as his friend Harry Wicks remembered, ‘Rightly or wrongly, he found the style and rhythms of the Third and soon, of the Fourth, Internationals unbearable’ [Wicks (1992) 148]. The Marxist League was his last involvement with that kind of politics.
Groves’ life was changing. Since the 1920s he had been employed only intermittently in a series of part-time jobs, including a stint at Booklovers Corner, the Hampstead bookshoop (owned by two ILP members, the Westropes) that was immortalised in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Casual work provided him with time for politics, study and writing, and for indulgence of his love of the cinema, Bix Beiderbecke, beer, pubs, football and folksong. But in 1935 he secured a job he enjoyed: working as a journalist on World Film News. Established by the pioneering documentary film makers John Grierson and Basil Wright, this was an influential, if short-lived, monthly magazine. His new work catered for and extended his abiding interest in all aspects of film production and appreciation. In 1937 he completed his history of Chartism and it was accepted by the anti-Stalinist publisher, Frederic Warburg. He saw it as a meditation on the class politics of both the 1840s and the 1920s and 1930s, a plea for working-class independence and a parable of the problems with popular frontism. That April he was adopted as prospective parliamentary candidate for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.
This provided an opportunity to carry socialism into the countryside, although Aylesbury was a safe Conservative seat and no contest was in view until the next general election, probably in 1940. However a by-election was precipitated in May 1938 by the unexpected resignation of the incumbent MP. A strong current of Popular Front opinion demanded that Labour step aside to provide a clear run for the Liberals, the established second party in Aylesbury. Transport House would have none of it. Labour’s national agent, George Shepherd, at first sought to replace Groves with a more conventional and ‘stronger’ candidate; but he finally bowed to Groves’ sustained support by the local party. The national machine swung behind Groves, whipping in unlikely supporters such as the popular frontists D.N. Pritt and Harold Laski.
Groves rose to the occasion. In the face of secessions from. the Aylesbury party, the appearance of a local, popular frontist peace alliance and a campaign of sustained vituperation from the CPGB, which claimed that Groves was ‘a friend of Franco’, actively abetting Hitler, he had to make concessions. His positive response to a questionnaire from Lloyd George’s Council of Action for Peace and Reconstruction that Britain should work with the League of Nations, incurred the disapproval of the Trotskyists. But in the view of the ILP’s New Leader,, he consistently expounded ‘the most outspoken Socialist appeal that had been heard from the official Labour Party platform for a very long time’. In the face of sustained criticism by the Liberal-Communist coalition, he remarked: ‘We are still Socialists down here.’ He ridiculed the Popular Front as the preserve of ‘the middle class element, university socialists, the “weekenders” who had never done a day’s work for the local party, and the social elite of the Left Book Club’ [Groves (1938) 1].
Amid predictions of a lost deposit, despite general commendation of the campaign, the vote on 19 May 1938 was widely perceived as a vindication of Labour and its candidate. The Daily Herald proclaimed ‘Congratulations Mr Groves and Goodbye, Popular Front’. Support for the Conservatives and Liberals dropped by 3000 in each case; the Labour vote increased by 3500. Groves was the only candidate to increase his share of the vote and was the first Labour candidate in Aylesbury not to lose his deposit. The swing against the Conservatives was greater than in the ensuing ‘Munich by-elections’ in Bridgewater and Oxford.
Aylesbury by-Election, 19 May 1938: electorate 63,624, turnout 63.0 per cent
Sir H. S. Reed (Conservative) 21,695 (54.1 per cent) T.A. Robertson (Liberal) 10,751 (26.8 per cent) R. Groves (Labour) 7,666 (19.1 per cent)
Majority 10,944 (27.3 per cent)
For Groves the episode affirmed that the only way to a new revolutionary politics was via direct engagement with workers. The rituals and language of small group politics, their emphasis on internal disputation and the constraints of democratic centralism he now viewed as a barrier to creative socialism. Aylesbury reinforced his commitment to a revolutionary populism in which the Popular Front had no place. Rejecting overtures in autumn 1938 from the American Trotskyist James P. Cannon to involve him in the leadership of the unified Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, he chose to plough his own furrow. The collapse of World Film News provided more time for politics. From 1939 he was the motivating influence in the Socialist Anti-War Front (SAWF), which argued that only socialism could stop war and that the workers should oppose the military preparations. He was elected to the executive of the No Conscription League, which was established in February 1939 with the support of the Labour Party and trade union branches and claimed to represent 700,000 workers.
Upon the outbreak of hostilities he produced the first of several issues of a small monthly, Home Front, which promised to document the real story of the conflict in industry and civilian life in Britain. In the pages of the Call of the Socialist Anti-War Front, he argued that the war was like its predecessor of 1914-18, a product of imperialist rivalry. Workers should oppose it and fight for wage increases, controls over prices and profits and the socialisation of industry. His attempts to revive the anti-war traditions of 1914-18 incurred the wrath of the Trotskyists, who believed he was sowing illusions in the state and that revolutionaries should acknowledge the fascist threat by agitating within the armed forces for workers’ defence. He found time to write a regular column of film reviews for the New Leader,, demonstrating a partiality for James Cagney, the gangster cycle of the 1930s and the epic westerns.
His response to Harold Laski’s support for the war, in the pamphlet It Is an Imperialist War, ended his honeymoon with the Labour Party. Shepherd wrote to inform him that he was recommending his expulsion for violation of party policy. Groves responded defensively, claiming that the pamphlet had been written before the party’s 1940 conference had endorsed Labour’s entry into the coalition government. He publicly stated: ‘As long as I am a member of the Party I am bound to accept these decisions’ [Groves (1940) 13]. Shepherd relented and Groves modified his position. He began to argue that the only way to win the war was through adoption of socialist policies.
Groves underwent something of a personal crisis. In early 1940 he had volunteered for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit but had been rejected. Dunkirk brought his populism, nationalism and realism to the surface. The immediacy of the Nazi threat convinced him that the defence of the democracies was a necessary obligation for socialists. The SAWF and the Call disappeared. He decided not to register as a conscientious objector as he had earlier intended. Instead he spent the rest of the war in a reserved occupation as a maker of documentary films for the Ministry of Information, but refused to accept the army commission that went with the job. He remained politically active, supporting the ILP’s Campaign For a Socialist Britain Now, which was launched in January 1942 and called for the immediate social ownership of industry, redistribution of wealth, freedom for the colonies and ‘a socialist peace offensive’. Unlike some of his political associates, Groves rejected the temptation to quit Labour and join the ILP. He was a delegate to party conferences between 1941 and 1944 and sensed a mood of change. Nonetheless his problems with the National Executive continued. In 1942 he was endorsed as candidate for Aylesbury, but was warned to keep his distance from the ILP. His response was to augment his political contributions to the ILP press with a regular column, ‘Time to kill’, in the New Leader, . This prefigured some of the concerns of what came to be known in later decades as ‘cultural studies’ in its attention to the social significance of film, theatre, language (particularly working-class speech), jazz, folksong, the music hall, football and working-class history.
Groves remained a revolutionary. He continued to urge the case against state regulation and Morrison-style nationalisation, and argued for workers’ management, democratic planning and socialism as ‘a complete change in the whole basis of our way of working and living’ [Groves (New Leader, 30 October 1943) 2]. But as a revolutionary in a world that offered limited prospects for revolution, he chose the Labour Party as the best place to work for socialist change. More than ever he saw Stalinism as a perversion of socialism and viewed the CPGB with contempt. He still appeared at Trotskyist meetings and chaired the launch in May 1944 of the Anti-Labour Laws Victims Defence Committee, established to protest against the imprisonment of Jock Haston and his comrades in the Revolutionary Communist Party. Emotionally Groves had a love-hate relationship with Trotskyism, but he would not return to that path. Politically he had broken decisively from the trajectory he had followed since 1926 and in a different fashion between 1930 and 1937.
Instead he cultivated a small, informal network, the Red Flag Fellowship. It discussed socialist prospects in the postwar era and its meetings were addressed by a range of speakers, memorably by George Orwell. The close of the war saw the birth of the Groves’ twin daughters, Frances and Jennifer. In the 1945 general election he once again performed with distinction at Aylesbury. But the campaign was marred by differences between Groves and party workers, particularly over his outspoken attacks on Churchill.
Aylesbury, 1945: electorate 73,737, turnout 69.5 per cent
Sir H. S. Reed (Conservative) 24,537 (47.8 per cent)
R. Groves (Labour) 16,445 (32.1 per cent)
G.D. Naylor (Liberal) 10,302 (20.1 per cent)
Majority 8,092 (15.7 per cent)
Uncomfortable in the constituency that had brought him fleeting fame, Groves decamped to Eastbourne in Sussex. There he turned in a creditable performance in the 1950 general election. He increased Labour’s total by 5000 votes, although his reservations about government policy and his belief that Britain should take a neutral position between the United States and Russia caused consternation.
Sussex (East), Eastbourne, 1950: electorate 69 932, turnout 85.1 per cent
C.S. Taylor (Conservative) 35,425 (59.5 per cent)
R. Groves (Labour) 18,304 (30.8 per cent)
C.L.H. Douglas-Bate (Liberal) 5,766 (9.7 per cent)
Majority 17,121 (28.7 per cent)
This time candidate and constituency parted amicably. Groves had a longstanding agreement that if a vacancy became available in Saffron Walden, Essex, another unwinnable but more rural constituency, he would allow his name to be put forward.
His statements during the 1951 campaign, questioning the radicalism of Attlee’s domestic policies and opposing the Korean War, were criticised in the press and used against him by his patrician Conservative opponent, R.A. Butler. His speech calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Britain — ‘Clear out the American bomber squadrons’ — provoked a storm in Saffron Walden. While he pushed up Labour’s vote and its share of the poll, the Conservative vote also increased.
Essex, Safron Walden, 1951: electorate 47,836, turnout 83.1 per cent
Rt Hon. R. A. Butler (Conservative) 20,564 (51.7 per cent)
R. Groves (Labour) 15,425 (38.8 per cent)
W.O. Smedley (Liberal) 3,774 (9.5 per cent)
Majority 5,139 (12.9 per cent)
In the aftermath of the election the national agent, R.T. Windle, interviewed Groves and raised his disregard of policy with the National Executive Committee. Groves escaped with another warning, and a promise to exercise greater care in future. Some constituency activists were not placated and in 1952 he was once more on his travels. The 1955 general election saw him contesting Ilford North in a campaign studded with disputes over Labour’s defence policy and acrimony over German rearmament and nuclear deterrence. He restored Labour’s fortunes — its vote had collapsed in a 1954 by-election but, in accordance with the national trend, not to the peak of 1951.
Ilford North, 1955: electorate 67,496, turnout 76.6 per cent
T.L. Iremonger (Conservative) 28,749 (55.6 per cent)
R. Groves (Labour) 18,248 (35.3 per cent)
P. L. Rose (Liberal) 4,702 (9.1 per cent)
Majority 10,501 (20.3 per cent)
In June 1957 -Groves was selected a second time as Labour candidate for Eastbourne, the National Executive Committee having given its approval after careful consideration. He was unhappy with the organisation and weakness of campaigning in the constituency. Some activists were concerned about his views on defence and his sponsoring of a CND group in Eastbourne. After discussion and correspondence with Ron Hayward, the regional organiser, he offered his resignation and it was accepted by the local party. This marked an end to 20 years of rural peregrination and propaganda, an unusual personal crusade that was sometimes painful, often thankless and always stimulated by his central belief that the propagation of socialist ideas among workers in the countryside came far down the list of priorities of socialists across the spectrum. He reflected that he had never picked his constituencies, they had picked him. But he had usually laid down two conditions: they should be rural and hard to win.
In the postwar years Groves made a kind of living from freelance journalism, the occasional film script and book royalties. Rebels’ Oak (1947) and The Peasants’ Revolt (1950) reflected his absorption with the long history of rural struggle, while Sharpen the Sickle (1949), the story of the agricultural workers’ union, was one of the few trade Union histories to transcend the genre and attract a wider audience. His love affair with the traditional English pub and his deep affection for Chelsea Football Club endured. He edited the Amateur Football Handbook, wrote histories of Chelsea and West Ham United, and even tried his hand at a western. During the war he had become a member of the Cinematograph Technicians’ Union and in the early 1950s he was appointed as editor of its paper, Film Technician. Once again things did not work out: political differences in the union presaged a parting of the ways.
Groves found work as a reader for ABC Films, assessing the suitability of novels for the screen. His earlier allegiance reasserted itself. Throughout the 1950s he was active in the Socialist Christian League, together with Purkis, who edited the magazine Socialist Christian, and Desormeaux, who with the anarchist vicar Gresham Kirkby were its animating force. He held Christ’s teaching to be a model for socialists and loved the language of the Bible, but he rarely went to church. When in 1960 the League, with its strong revolutionary ethos, joined its competitor, the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers in the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), Groves opposed the initiative. He was minimally involved with the bland CSM.
He had lectured for the National Council of Labour Colleges since the 1930s. From the 1960s his income came from taking local authority adult education classes in Wandsworth Prison, and from teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association, City University, the London University Extra-Mural Department and the National Union of Agricultural Workers. His 1967 study of Noel was worthy but only episodically brought the man, as distinct from his movement, to life. He continued to be active in the Labour Party but in the early 1970s he came into contact with the International Socialists, the predecessors of the Socialist Workers’ Party. His memories of the early days of British Trotskyism were published in their journal and later as The Balham Group (1974). Together with Harry Wicks, he spoke at International Socialist meetings. He sympathised with their aspirations, but unlike Harry he was never tempted to return to Trotskyist politics. His Christian socialism endured. From 1974 until the mid 1980s he was active in the Jubilee Group, formed by the socialist priest Kenneth Leech to sustain the study and renewal of the radical Christian tradition and keep something of Thaxted alive. He was associated with the Dictionary of Labour Biography, working on entries on Christian socialists.
Graves died after a stroke on 17 May 1988, leaving £100,500. Gresham Kirkby preached at his cremation, which was attended by Christian socialists and Trotskyists, as well as family members and friends. As a young man he was serious and single-minded, possessed of bursts of infectious enthusiasm, very much an individual, never the best team worker but a loyal friend who could quarrel without enmity. He could be impatient and had a stubborn streak. He mellowed into a gentle, sometimes gruff, always colourful character, a great storyteller who was still interested . worlds beyond politics. His life was a troubled attempt to reconcile the crucifix and the red flag. His belief in the revolutionary tradition and contemporary mission of English workers, whom he knew at first hand, was primary. His identification with Thaxted flowed from and affirmed that credo, entwining the desire for God’s kingdom on Earth with the longing for a lost but remembered organic community, a socialist Merrie England. In official Communism and Trotskyism he sought instruments to realise this utopian ambition. Disillusioned with the means, he continued to believe passionately in the end, and like other thwarted revolutionaries he sought solace in the Labour Party, another dreamer fallen among realists. If he was no more successful than the long line he venerated, from John Ball through Julian Harney to Conrad Noel, his consolation was that he would be remembered as a worthy member of the distinguished fellowship of English revolutionaries.
(1) Books: But We Shall Rise Again: A Narrative History of Chartism (1938); The Mystery of Victor Grayson (1946); as P.R. Groves, Jesse James (1946); Rebels’ Oak: The Norfolk Rebellion of 1549 (1947); Sharpen the Sickle: The History of the Farmworkers’ Union (1949); with Philip Lindsay, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (1950); Conrad Noel and the Thaxted Movement (1967); The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began (1974); The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (1975).
(2) Pamphlets: Four Years of Labour Opposition: A Communist Examination of the Labour Party’s Record in the House of Commons from 1925 to 1929 (1929); East End Crisis! Socialism, the Jews and Fascism (n.d., 1935); Trades Councils in the Fight for Socialism (n.d., 1936); Arms and the Unions (1936); It Is An Imperialist War: A Reply to Laski’s Defence of the War (1940); Chelsea: The Story of Chelsea Football Club (1947); West Ham United (1947); The Catholic Crusade, 1918-1936 (1970); Seed Time and Harvest: A National Centenary (of the Agricultural Workers’ Union) (1972); The General Strike in Battersea (n.d., 1985); To The Edge of Triumph: Charles Marson, Priest and Socialist (1985).
(3) Articles: ‘Letter’, Sunday Worker, 25 April 1926; ‘The Class Struggle and Keir Hardie’, Communist, September 1928; ‘Chartism and The Present day’, Labour Monthly, January 1929; ‘The Class Leadership of Chartism’, Labour Monthly, April 1929; ‘Mondism and Our Industrial Policy’, Communist Review, July 1929; ‘Our Party and the New Period’, Communist Review, November 1929; ‘The Brighton Labour Party Conference’, Labour Monthly, November 1929; ‘A Year of Struggles in Britain’, Daily Worker, 23 January 1930; ‘Luddism: A Necessary Step in the History of our Movement’, Daily Worker, 7 February 1930; ‘A Dyspeptic Interpretation of Karl Marx’, Labour Monthly, February 1930; ‘Marx and the Labour Parliament of 1854’, Labour Monthly, March 1930; ‘Folded Arms’, Labour Monthly, May 1930; as ‘Plowman’, ‘Workers’ Notebook’, Daily Worker, March-May 1930; ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Labour Monthly, June 1930; ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, Labour Monthly, September 1930; ‘Their Charter and Ours’, Worker (Minority Movement), 19 September 1930; ‘Fighting For The Leadership’, Worker, 2 October 1930; ‘Pain and Growth’, Worker, 23 October 1930; ‘Riot and Revolt Ninety Years Ago’, Worker, 31 October 1930; ‘Women in 1840 and Today’, Worker, 7 November 1930; ‘The Dotage of the Hammonds’, Labour Monthly, November 1930; ‘The Up-to-Date Fabian’, Labour Monthly, April 1931; ‘A Typical British Trade Union’, Labour Monthly, August 1931; as ‘Angelicus’, ‘British Crisis Sharpens’, Militant (USA), 10 October 1931; ‘Growing Revolt Against National Government’, Militant, 24 October 1931; ‘Conservatives Press Attack on Labour’, Militant, 21 November 1931; ‘National Government in Sharp Attack on Workers’ Standards’, Militant, 26 December 1931; ‘Vienna and the London Elections’, Red Flag, March 1934; ‘Threat to Trotsky’, Red Flag, August 1934; ‘The Rise and Decline of R.P. Dutt’, Red Flag, August 1934; ‘The Communist League and its Future’, Red Flag, October 1934; ‘Spain and the British Left’, Red Flag, November 1934; ‘After the French Socialist Congress’, Socialist Leaguer, July 1935; ‘Trade Union Democracy Threatened’, Socialist, January 1936; ‘Maintain and Strengthen Local Unity’, Socialist, March 1936; ‘The Labour Party and the Young Workers’, Socialist, June 1936; ‘Prelude to War 1: Germany’s War Machine’, Socialist, July 1936; ‘Prelude to War 2: Menace to Unions’, Socialist, October 1936; ‘Reg Groves Replies: the Unity Agreement and the Moscow Trials’, Red Flag, February 1937; ‘A Disclaimer’, Socialist Broadsheet, February 1937; ‘How We Fought the Liberal-Communist Alliance’, Forward, 28 May 1938; film column in New Leader,, 1939-40; ‘The Course of the War’, Call of the Socialist Anti-War Front, 1 November 1939; ‘Rally Growing Militant Forces’, Call, December 1939; ‘Peg Prices, Raise Wages’, Abolish Profits’, Call, January 1940; ‘Socialists and The War’, Home Front, June 1940; ‘Time to kill’ column in New Leader, 1943-45; ‘Need Labour MPs Know Their History?’, New Leader,, 19 August 1943; ‘ “Mission to Moscow” is Miles from the Truth’, New Leader,, 4 September 1943; ‘Old Words for New Times’, New Leader,, 16, 30 October, 13, 27 November 1943; ‘The 28 Pioneers’, New Leader,, 8 July 1944; ‘Visions of England, Socialist Leader, 15 October 1949; ‘A Backward Glance in Working Class History’, Socialist Leader, 29 October 1949; ‘The Problem of Revolution: The Biggest Single Question of our Time’, Socialist Leader, 3 December 1949; ‘The Madness of John Clare’, Socialist Leader, 24 December 1949; ‘He Lifted His Head’, Socialist Leader, 28 January 1950; ‘The Story of Eugene Debs’, Socialist Leader, 4 February 1950; ‘The God That Failed’, Socialist Leader, 25 March 1950; ‘Politics and the People’s Culture’, Socialist Leader, 24 June 1950; ‘Down Lambeth Way’, Socialist Leader, 18 August 1951; ‘He Personified the Up and Battling East Ender’, Socialist Leader, 24 November 1951; ‘Songs and Singers of the Nineteenth Century’, Socialist Leader, 29 December 1951; ‘Jazz, The Theatre and The People’, Socialist Leader, 4 October 1952; ‘The Cat and the Cannibals’, Socialist Leader, 6 December 1952; ‘3 Dimension’, Socialist Leader, 21 March 1953; ‘The Christians, The Cricketers and The Cockneys’, Socialist Leader, 21 March 1953; ‘Noel, Conrad, le Despenser Roden 1869-1942’, in J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds), Dictionary of Labour Biography, vol. lt (1974); ‘The Socialist League’, Revolutionary History, 1,1, (Spring 1988). Also articles in Agricultural Worker, Balham and Tooting Gazette, Christian Socialism, Cine Technician, International Socialism, Journeyman Baker, Leeds Weekly Citizen, Socialist Outlook, Socialist Review, Tribune, Woodcraft Folk.
(1) MSS: Graves Papers, Sara-Maitland Papers, Wicks Papers, MRC, University of Warwick; Haston Papers, Noel Papers, University of Hull; Reg Groves, ‘A Documentary History of the Socialist League’, mimeo, and other unpublished writings on the Socialist League by Groves are in possession of A. Richardson; Reg Groves, interview with A. Richardson, 2 April 1978; Steve Dowdall and Daisy Groves, interview with A. Richardson, n.d., 1982.
(2) Books and articles: A.F. Brockway, Inside The Left (1941); St John Groser, Politics and Persons (1949); W.R. Jones, Diary of a Misfit Priest (1960); L.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: its origin and development until 1929 (1966); M.B. Reckitt, For Christ And The People (1968); K. Brill (ed.), John Groser: East London Priest (1971); L. Trotsky, ‘Murphy's Expulsion’, ‘After the British Expulsions’, ‘After the British Municipal Elections’, in Writings Of Leon Trotsky: Supplement, 1929-33 (New York, 1979); L. Trotsky, ‘Summary of the Discussion’, in Writings … 1934-35 (New York, 1971); L. Trotsky, ‘Greetings to The Red Flag’, in Writings 1932-33 (New York, 1972); L. Trotsky, ‘Whither the Independent Labour Party’, ‘How to Influence the ILP’, ‘Principled Considerations on Entry’, ‘The Lever of a Small Group’, in Writings … 1933-34 (New York, 1972); ‘Questions of a British Group’, ‘Some Advice to a British Group’, ‘A Good Omen for Joint Work in Britain’, ‘For A Common Goal in Britain’, ‘Interview on British Problems’, in Writings … 1935-36 (New York, 1977); L. Trotsky, ‘The IS Reply to the British Majority’, ‘Differences with the British Minority’, ‘Obstacles in Britain’, in Writings … Supplement, 1934-40 (New York, 1979); H. Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain: the CPGB from its origins to the Second World War (1976); D. Howell, British Social Democracy: a study in development and decay (1976); B. Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s (Cambridge, 1977); A. Richardson, The Early Years of the British Left Opposition (1979); R. Groves, ‘Sixty Years of Struggle’, Socialist Review (March 1983); S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Against the Stream: a history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, 1924-38 (1986); M. Upham, ‘The Aylesbury By-Election of 1938’, Revolutionary History, 1, 3 (Autumn 1988); H. Wicks, Keeping My Head: the memoirs of a British Bolshevik (1992); K. Leech (ed.), Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade: a critical evaluation (1993); J. Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism (1993); B. Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: the life and times of a revolutionary (1997); A. Wilkinson, Christian Socialism from Scott Holland to Tony Blair (1998); J. Archer, ‘Britain: entrism and the Labour Party, 1931-1937’, Revolutionary History, 8, 1 (2001) M. Tyldesley, ‘Jack Bucknall (1888-1945): a particular kind of Socialist’, Labour History Review, 67, 2 (2001).
(3) Thesis: J. Archer, ‘Trotskyism In Britain, 1931-37’ (Council For National Academic Awards, PhD, 1980); M. Upham, The History of British Trotskyism to 1949 (Hull University, PhD, 1980).
(4) Obituary: Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 54, 1 (spring 1989).
(5) Other: Information and papers from J. Bennett, K. Leech and A. Richardson. JOHN MCILROY
There are also entries in the Dictionary of Labour History for St John Beverley GROSER; Jock HASTON; Gerry HEALY; Conrad NOEL; Arthur READE; Henry SARA.
Last updated: 24 May 2013