R. Page Arnot

The Struggle for Unity in Great Britain

Source: The Communist International, December 1937, Vol. XIV, No. 12.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

AT THE celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the great proletarian revolution, British workers not only rejoice at the present achievements and the future glorious prospects of the Soviet Union, but also cast their minds back over the past twenty years and see the stupendous contrast, not only with what was under tsardom but with what was and is in Great Britain now. Here was a backward country, its agriculture primitive, its population largely illiterate, its working class and peasantry deprived of rights: here on the other hand was one of the most advanced countries of the world, its population literate, with its working class for well-nigh a century organized and enjoying a measure of democratic rights won in struggle. And now? Which is advanced and which is backward?

Of all the contrasts which are vividly present to the mind of the British working class at this moment the most poignant is the contrast between the single united party of the working class, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the Bolsheviks) and the disunited conditions of the British labor movement. The existence of the monolithic Party of the U.S.S.R. is the clue to the triumph now being celebrated. The disunity in British labor is the clue to its continued subjection to the handful of millionaires who are the real owners of the British National government.

The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, has been boasting that his government is stronger than ever before-—but its apparent strength resides solely in the weakness and confusion of the opposition to it. There is no real strength in the position of the British bourgeoisie. On the contrary the might of British imperialism, already on the wane since the general crisis of capitalism, has been still further eclipsed by the military aggression of German-Italian-Japanese fascism threatening its trade routes, its Empire connections and its dominating position in the markets of the world. This has had an effect on all parties and classes, causing confusion, shiftings, differentiation. The effects of the world economic crisis have had a lasting impression. Not only the working class, but those intermediate sections of the population, such as small businessmen, farmers and professionals have felt the adverse effects of the crisis, and have been seeking some means of escape from the difficult position into which they have been thrust. The speed-up and increased accidents in the workshops, the fall in real wages, the alarming extent of malnutrition are paralleled amongst the intermediate sections by the rise in prices, professional unemployment, uncertainty for the future, while the whole people stand under the shadow of the menace of war and fascism.

Here is the opportunity for the working class of Great Britain, with its tradition of organization, with its history of struggle reaching back to the Chartists, to lead in organizing and rallying the whole people, but the chief labor organizations of Great Britain, in just this period of the opportunity and the crying need for unity, are headed by such reactionary leaders as Ernest Bevin and Sir Walter Citrine, who have done everything to bring about disunity in the labor movement to the advantage of no one but the capitalists.

The recent Labor Party Conference has given a signal that it is becoming more and more difficult for Bevin-Citrine and Co. to carry through this policy of disunity. The point is that ever since the Seventh Congress of the Communist International the issues have been sharply joined, but especially in the last fifteen months the conflict between the policy of unity in the fight against fascism, reaction and war, on the one hand, and the policy of disunity, with covert or open support of the millionaires and their National government on the other hand, has become sharper and sharper. The more the line of the Seventh Congress of the Communist International came to be understood and applied by masses of workers in the trade unions, the more fiercely have the Bevin-Citrine group fought to destroy the building of unity.

To bring about disunity, both on a national and international scale, they launched a foul, lying campaign against the U.S.S.R. with Citrine’s book, and took under their protection the Trotskyite spies and terrorists who had been brought to trial before the court of the working people of the U.S.S.R. This anti-Soviet campaign continues up to this moment. Within the British trade unions they sought to exterminate the influence of the Communists; after the London bus strike of May, 1937, the strike leaders were expelled from the union.

With a bitterness which aroused comment in the capitalist press they fought against the unity campaign and threatened with expulsion and excommunication Stafford Cripps, who led the campaign inside the Labor Party. They prevented help being given to Spain, supported the Franco-helping non-intervention policy of the National government and in this way played into the hands of this government. They hamstrung their own parliamentary Labor Party, when, this summer, it wanted to vote down war credits and, as a token of their real support of the 1,500 million pounds arms policy of the National government, insisted on a policy of abstention from voting.

The leadership of the labor movement of Britain had proved unable to rally the workers for the struggle against the policy of the National government. The critical situation was driving forward the process of differentiation within the Labor Party. Not only the Left wing headed by Cripps, which had been fighting for the affiliation of the Communist Party of Great Britain to the Labor Party, stood out clearly but a large center grouping, represented by Attlee and others, opposed the reactionary leaders. For a time all that the Right wing did in face of this was to drive ahead more viciously with its splitting policy.

But meantime there were new circumstances which prevented the carrying out to the full their splitting plans and compelled the Right wing to maneuver. First of all, the invasion of the Basque territory, the destruction of Guernica and Bilbao had aroused a real wave of popular indignation in Britain for the first time since the fascist rebellion and invasion of Spain began. In July there was a definite outspoken opposition in Parliament to the National government policy comprising Labor and Liberal M.P.’s and Lloyd George.

Second, despite the measures taken to cripple the unity campaign it was clear that the demand for unity had met with a very wide response amongst the workers, who remained cold to the efforts of the leadership to present the Labor Party as itself being the “one and only” united front.

Third, the obvious setback to the Labor Party throughout the country, caused by the Bevin-Citrine policy and the apparent unlikelihood of an early Labor government, had led to a demand for a wider grouping in support of democracy and peace, for help to Spain and for collective security. This demand which the Trade Union Congress had rejected in September, 1936, that the people of Britain should emulate the successes of the People’s Front in France, began once more to be put forward and was voiced by many Labor and Liberal intellectuals.

Fourth, the extremely rapid rise in the cost of living, together with the worsening of workshop conditions, was accompanied by new rising mass pressure for increases in wages, for shorter hours; for labor holidays with pay, etc. The defeat of the bus strike in London had only a temporary effect and the new mass pressure showed itself first in the novel form of strikes of apprentices, especially in the war industry.

Under all these circumstances, with the approach of the Trade Union Congress in September and the Labor Party Conference in October, the Bevin-Citrine leadership planned its maneuver as follows:

1. To avoid a struggle at the Trades Union Congress by yielding on the question of Spain and by sundry “Left” gestures and resolutions.

2. To gag the Labor Party Conference by ruling out from the agenda all resolutions on unity.

3. To commit both these annual gatherings to implicit support of the government arms program.

How did the maneuver succeed? At the Trades Union Congress it was successful; at the Labor Party Conference the Bevin-Citrine group, while winning on the question of arms and unity, were severely defeated on inner-party democracy and on the elections to the Executive. The Labor Party Conference represents a defeat that seriously impairs the success of the whole maneuver.

At the Trades Union Congress, Bevin and Citrine seemed to have it all their own way. On Spain, these Right-wing leaders who had sabotaged the fight of the Spanish people, who in the Second International had prevented international working class united action, now came forward to denounce the “nonintervention” policy for which they are utterly responsible—with the result that their critics were compelled to vote for the resolution proposed by Sir Walter Citrine.

Actually, this yielding on Spain, China on economic questions, was made possible by the fighting mood of the working class, and, accordingly, in those resolutions a basis is given for the Communist Party to lead a struggle for the putting into effect of these results of the Trades Union Congress.

At the Labor Party Conference, on the issues chosen for debate, they appeared to be equally successful. Unity had been ruled out of discussion. The question could only arise by referring back the Executive’s report—a procedure which weighs the odds against any change because it must take the form of a condemnation, in this respect, of the elected executive.

On the question of arms, they managed to avoid the issue being prominently raised for or against the National government. The debate was chiefly with the pacifists. While the Lansbury section was correctly defeated by the Centrist speakers for collective security, the fact that the Labor Party had been implicitly permitted to support the National government was underlined by the outspoken jingo utterances of the 1914 social-chauvinist vein of several speakers.

But this apparent success was robbed of its value by the decision of the local Labor Parties and by the election of new forces standing for working class unity. The local Labor Parties, dissatisfied for years with the domination of the powerful trade unions, had demanded larger representation in the Executive Committee. The Executive had conceded an increase from five to seven, making the total number 25. At the conference, Bevin, Marchbanks, Secretary for Railwaymen, and other Right wingers opposed this extension of democratic rights, including the choice of their representatives directly by the local Labor Parties. They were defeated. Further, the local Labor Parties made use of their newly-won rights to elect to the Executive as their representatives, Cripps (leader of the campaign for unity within the Labor Party), Laski and Pritt. This was a still more serious defeat.

The Daily Herald, together with the Manchester Guardian, tried to make light of this result which they presented as evidence of the magnanimity and brotherly-love spirit of the Labor leaders. But the fact was that the representatives of the local Labor Parties, though by no means all of them Left in their outlook, are seriously alarmed by the situation of the Labor Party. The meetings in the recent campaign for 100,000 new members have been miserably poor, and a strong contrast to the large and enthusiastic meetings addressed by Cripps and by the leaders of the Communist Party.

Well might the Times print a rueful editorial, headed “Labor Looks Left,” for the happy mood which the Trade Union Congress had brought to the Times as well as to Messrs. Bevin and Citrine had been rudely disturbed:

“The Labor Party Conference last week accepted a demand for a bolder and more aggressive leadership; a more thorough and uncompromising presentation of the socialist creed; an open recognition and vigorous conduct of class war. No such resolution will appear on the records of the conference, but it is written in the reconstruction of the Executive Committee and in the high spirits and rejoicings of the representatives of the constituency Labor parties. . . .

“But there were deeds as well as words, elections as well as resolutions, and the Executive that now directs the affairs of the Party is not the old Executive, for it includes the two forceful freelances whom the old Executive was threatening with expulsion from the Party—Sir Stafford Cripps and Professor Laski—and with them stands Mr. D. N. Pritt. The principal champion of the ‘united front,’ the most persistent advocate of the class war in the party, has been set by constituency party votes on the party’s governing body.”

It is clear enough from this that these results of the Labor Party Conference have caused dismay among the bourgeoisie. Despite the reactionary decisions on unity and on the arms policy of the National government, this Bournemouth Labor Party Conference signifies a considerable change in the working class from last year.

But the change as yet is mainly in the possibilities it opens up of renewed struggle, by the whole people of Britain against reaction, fascism and war. To make these possibilities now opened up into actualities, to turn the resolutions on China and Spain, on foreign policy and home affairs into an effective mass movement, require the utmost persistence and a determined struggle.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain which before the Bournemouth Conference had issued an appeal to the delegates to rise to the height of the opportunity offered to labor to give a lead to the whole mass of the people, published an important statement following the Conference in which it was said:

“The more effectively the Labor Party is organized to fight against rising prices and profits; the stronger its demand for higher wages and shorter hours, and against encroachments on democratic rights; for solidarity with the Spanish and Chinese peoples in their heroic struggles against fascism; for unity of action against fascist aggression on the part of all democratic states identified with the League of Nations, and for independent working class action to force the National government to carry out the demands of labor immediately—the greater will be the possibilities for the development of a mass movement of all working class and progressive people of Britain.”

But for this purpose, and for the defeat of the National government, working class unity is essential. Therefore, the Communist Party of Great Britain in this statement once again expressed “its readiness to become affiliated to the Labor Party” and said:

“We wish to overcome the difficulties which have hitherto prevented cooperation between the Labor Party and the Communist Party in the struggle against capitalism and the National government.

“The Communist Party accepts in its full meaning the Constitution of the Labor Party, it will abide by all decisions of Labor Party Conferences; it will not ask for special privileges and will accept the same obligations and rights as all other affiliated organizations to the Labor Party.”

It dealt with the various objections raised to Communist affiliation and stated that:

“The Communist Party in all earnestness and seriousness declares its readiness to discuss with representatives of the Labor Party the objections that they may feel stand in the way of the achievement of working class unity.”

It is clear that unless unity of the working class is brought about, unless all progressive and democratic forces in Britain are rallied, the danger of fascism and of war will increase still more rapidly. But if the struggle is waged effectively to carry out this struggle for unity, including affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labor Party, then around a united working class movement there can be such a rallying of progressive and democratic forces as will force a change now in the policy of the National government. Such a movement can replace the National government by a government carrying through a policy of democracy at home and abroad.