Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Twelve:
The Left-Wing Movement

A COUNTERPART to the Minority Movement in the unions was the Left-Wing Movement established in the Labour Party at the end of 1925. Before discussing this movement, let us sketch the attitude of the CPGB to the Labour Party.

Lenin had argued, at the Second Congress of the Communist International, that the Labour Party was a bourgeois party:

Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its action and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers. [1]

Lenin believed that the Communist Party should try to affiliate to the Labour Party on a short-term basis. He was rightly trying to counter the ultra-left tendency of some Communists who saw no point in relating to reformist organisations. He ended his speech with the following words:

If the British Communist Party starts by acting in a revolutionary manner in the Labour Party, and if the Hendersons [A] are obliged to expel this party, that will be a great victory for the communist and revolutionary working-class movement in Britain. [2]

When the Communist Party accepted Lenin’s suggestion that they apply for Labour Party membership (by 100 votes to 85 at its founding congress) there was a risk that at least some of the members would see in this a means to accommodation with Labour, not the way of an open offensive against it. This was especially true of the ex-BSP group who made up the majority of the membership of the CPGB. After all, the BSP had been affiliated to the Labour Party from its inception. And as BSP activity had been largely limited to parliamentary and municipal propaganda, the danger was severe. The affiliation of the Communist Party could be the slippery slope to opportunism.

Much depended on the clarity of the membership in undertaking the manoeuvre. Unfortunately, those who argued for affiliation at the Communist Unity Convention do not seem to have understood Lenin’s position at all. One recurring argument ran like this:

Let us see that we unceasingly carried out our task, until such time as the Labour Party became a Labour Party with a Communist mind – and this could be done, for what we said today our Labour leaders would have to say to-morrow – and inscribed on the Labour Party banner were the sickle and the hammer. [3]

Lenin, in his speech at the Comintern Second Congress, explicitly rejected the BSP view of the Labour Party, and argued against William MacLaine, the BSP delegate who

called the Labour Party the political organisation of the trade union movement, and later repeated the statement when he said that the Labour Party is ‘the political expression of the workers organised in trade unions’. I have met the same view several times in the paper of the British Socialist Party. It is erroneous. [4]

Future developments would show that Lenin’s worry that the ex-BSP members would accommodate to the Labour Party was not without foundation. After 1920 Communist Party attempts to affiliate had been rebuffed regularly at every Labour Party Conference. But the ability of the Communists to work within local branches and through the unions at national conference meant that they could not be driven out so easily. Despite lack of success the focus had gradually shifted from a short sharp tactic of exposing the reformist leaders to one where the Labour Party was seen as open to conquest in the same way as the unions were supposed to be. It could be won not solely by earning the support of the rank and file, but actually gaining control of the machine.

Perhaps the seeds of this degeneration had been present from the first. Even when the Communist Party adopted Lenin’s affiliation strategy it is doubtful if it had the clarity and firmness to lead its disparate membership into this difficult struggle for revolutionary ideas within a deeply reformist party. The danger was that it would lose more to the influence of this reformist milieu than it gained in recruits for the revolution.

The campaign for affiliation soon ceased to be a temporary manoeuvre and became accepted as valid in itself. Already in 1922 The Communist carried an article which said:

The Communist Party wants to be able to advocate the working-class programme on an equal footing with any other party, before the whole proletariat ... and it cannot do this effectively outside the all-embracing working-class organisation – the Labour Party. Naturally it is willing, once inside, to accept the decisions and abide by the rules of that organisation. [5]

The introduction of the united front slogan was wrongly interpreted by many as a justification for such an approach. At the Fourth Comintern Congress the British party ‘came in for a little rough handling’ on this account, and Murphy, who as an ex-SLP member had always had a much harder attitude towards the Labour Party than the ex-BSP members, agreed:

Running throughout the party appears to be the notion that the party exists only to become a left wing of the Labour Party, that we ought not to criticise its leaders, that everything should be submerged to the idea of getting the Labour Party into power via parliament. In addition there are many pursuing a policy of hiding the fact that it is the Communist Party which is giving a lead; they object to programmes for the unions or other labour organisations going forward in the name of the party ... I have looked through the election material of members of the party, and in many cases it would be difficult to discover from the printed matter issued that they were members of the party. [6]

The election of the first Labour government threw Palme Dutt, as editor of Workers’ Weekly, off balance. Thus on 8 February 1924 he wrote: ‘We are not fighting against the Labour government, which it is our concern to uphold and sustain against the attacks of the bourgeoisie.’ [7] A week later he had to carry this stinging reply from Murphy:

... if the voice of working-class criticism is silenced because Labour is in office while in a minority in parliament, and pursuing a Liberal policy, how are we to develop the class-consciousness of the workers and free them from the snares of capitalist Liberalism? It seems to me that this would be a surrender of the revolutionary movement to MacDonald on a par with Macdonald’s surrender of the Labour Party to Nationalism. [8]

Most of the party needed very little persuasion to accept this when they saw the Labour government in operation, at one time threatening to use troops against a dockers’ strike. Murphy’s argument is as valid today as it was in 1924.

Although Palme Dutt’s uncritical support for the MacDonald government was ridiculed, the fact that a leading member of the CPGB could suggest such a policy at all illustrated the party’s weaknesses.

By 1925 the party had drifted rightwards once more. As with the trade union movement, so now in the Labour Party ‘good proletarians’ (the Labour Party equivalent of the General Council ‘lefts’) could do the job of leading the working class politically. The role of the Communist Party in all of this was seen as providing the energy and organising thrust behind developments. In other words the Communist Party was, as with the unions, adopting a ‘ginger group’ approach, seeking to use the revolutionary political pressure of its supporters to force the left leaders to lead inside the Labour Party.

Hence it was becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Communist Party’s approach to the Labour Party from that to the unions. The party no longer saw the class struggle in the workplace as being the most important guideline for its work, but differences between left and right official leaders. The gap between the bureaucracy and the rank and file, and the fact that the former were functionally locked into the perpetuation of the capitalist system, was overlooked. Exactly the same method of analysis could be applied to the Labour Party, but in this organisation it had even more bizarre consequences since the Communist Party also claimed to be a political party in direct competition with Labour.

There was, however, a qualitative difference between the trade unions and the Labour Party. It was not so much a matter of ideology. The vast majority of the members and leaders in both organisations were reformists of one sort or another. But the trade unions, whatever the ideas of the membership or the leaders, are organisations linked to collective struggle. Their ultimate source of strength lies in the creative capacity of workers at the point of production. Trade unions therefore have a relationship with the class struggle.

The Labour Party’s function then, as now, was quite different. This was notwithstanding the fact that its base consisted of practically the same people as the trade unions (with the addition of some middle-class elements not eligible for union membership, but these did not make a decisive difference at the time). In the leadership of the party were many prominent union leaders who doubled as members of parliament. Thomas and Purcell were examples. But the Labour Party existed to win elections and hoped by doing so to push reforms through parliament. True, the 1924 experience of Labour in government was an unmitigated disaster, but still hope sprang eternal that next time would be better.

Despite the fact that Labour’s principal financial support was its affiliated trade union membership, the party had no direct relationship with the point of production. The bureaucracy signed the cheques and cast the block votes at conference, not the rank and file. Further, the ordinary union member’s connection with the party was either totally passive (a few minutes spent putting a cross on a ballot form every few years) or at best consisted in canvassing during election campaigns with the idea of attracting as many voters as possible.

Thus despite the overlap of membership and leaders the unions and Labour Party were functionally separate and subject to very different influences. The workplace and the polling booth confront people in different ways, the one as members of the working class in a collective unit, the other as individual citizens of the national state. For these reasons revolutionaries cannot have the same approach to trade unions and the Labour Party. One is the mass organisation of the working class, the other claims to be a mass organisation acting on behalf of the working class.

The Communist Party did not see things in this light by 1925. In the unions the National Minority Movement pushed the Purcells and others forwards. In the Labour Party this job was to be done by a ‘Left-Wing Movement’. Just as the Communist Party abdicated leadership to the General Council lefts, so by putting all its efforts into a party tied to bourgeois parliament it was giving way in political terms to left reformism.

The distance the party had travelled on this road was clarified by Palme Dutt in an article of May 1925, though he still wrote in very radical terms:

The new revolutionary tasks, the revolutionary approach to the fundamental conceptions of State, Democracy, Empire, War, the need of a revolutionary mass party – these are not yet understood. And until they begin to be understood the Left Wing beats against the wall of its own limits.

These limits must be broken down ... To raise the Left Wing to revolutionary consciousness – this is the supreme task.

He concluded:

The development of the Left Wing is not only the key to the development of the Communist Party; the development of the Communist Party is also the key to the development of the Left Wing. [9]

The successful overthrow of capitalism in Britain will need the mass of left-wing Labour supporters to be won to revolutionary ideas. But this cannot be done by seeking to become a permanent faction in an organisation dedicated irrevocably to winning power through parliament. A programme of raising revolutionary consciousness among a mass of reformists is only possible through real class struggle. Thus the centre of the fight has to be the collective struggle of the workers, not their votes in a ballot box.

Just as the TUC ‘lefts’ had never intended their wild-cat speeches to be anything more than useful bargaining counters and spurned direct association with the as yet irresponsible ‘firebrands’ in the Minority Movement, so the prominent Labour Party lefts steered clear of involvement in the Communists’ Left-Wing Movement. The campaign for its formation was launched through a new paper, The Sunday Worker. This included several leading party members, such as William Paul and Tommy Jackson, on its editorial staff. In circulation terms, the paper was an astounding success, selling a regular 85,000 copies.

The paper at once got down to the business of organising the Left-Wing Movement. In the run-up to the Liverpool Labour Party Conference of 1925, it carried an article by Purcell which said the conference

must be the unifcation of our movement. Every element of the Left-Wing and Communist section that can give the Labour Party an additional ounce of strength must be enrolled at once. [10]

Nothing daunted by the fact that Purcell and company did not use an ounce of strength to defend the revolutionary left at Liverpool, the paper went on to organise a meeting of ‘well known trade union leaders, Labour MPs, members of the Plebs League, the Communist Party and ILP.’ There William Paul moved a resolution which began:

While warning the workers against any attempt whatsoever to form a new party, it thought that no barrier should prevent united action.

It then enunciated the principles behind the Left-Wing Movement:

  1. World trade union unity.
  2. National trade union unity from the factory to the General Council.
  3. Solidarity between British labour and the oppressed peoples of the Empire.
  4. A policy for the next Labour government aiming at overthrow of the capitalist class.
  5. Self-defence against fascism. [11]

Hicks nervously seconded the motion, explaining that he did so purely on the grounds that he thought it worthy of debate. But the ensuing row, which featured former Communist Party members such as Raymond Postgate, Frank Horrabin and Alf Purcell, meant that it had to be adjourned:

Postgate said he thought it very unwise to try and pass the resolution and argued that only a general discussion should take place. He was supported by J.F. Horrabin and two Members of Parliament who argued that a Left Wing that included the Communists would not be very successful. A.A. Purcell was afraid that the resolution would lead to the formation of a separate organisation within the Labour movement. [12]

In 1923 Purcell had demanded his pound of flesh from the Communist Party in return for a little radical rhetoric on the trade union front. But now the Labour lefts were even more avaricious. When, as a result of the Liverpool Conference, the Labour Party moved towards expelling its troublesome Communist supporters, Frank Horrabin demanded that since the Communist Party consisted of people wanting to build inside the Labour Party they should ‘face the existing situation, resign that membership and remain in the Labour Party as left-wingers.’

He was evidently incensed by the idea that he might be called upon to defend Communists from expulsion. These victims of a right-wing witch-hunt, he said,

have no right to throw the onus of taking action with regard to the expulsion decision on the Left-Wing comrades inside the Labour Party. [13]

This tells us something of the calibre of such ‘Left-Wing comrades’. But Pollitt’s reply to Horrabin’s spineless attitude was hardly more forthright:

No, Frank, we are not going either to resign from, or to liquidate the Communist Party ... I tell Comrade Horrabin straight away that without the Communist Party there cannot be any organised Left-Wing inside the Labour Party ...

But what I do accept that what is wanted now is for all those of us who are dissatisfied with Liverpool, and who are anxious for a real genuine organised Left-Wing Movement to get together. [14]

And so the campaign for the Left-Wing Movement rolled on, and with it the identity of the Communist Party became weaker and weaker. Saklatvala, a Communist Party member who was elected MP on a Labour Party ticket, wrote that the chief danger was that the Labour Party might be contaminated by the sort of attitudes held by the Liberal Party. Therefore:

Any new separate party of Left-Wingers would be a convenient surrender to the right-wing leaders and a splendid weapon to place in the hands of the reactionaries ... despite the Liberalising agencies at work in the Labour Party there are, thank goodness, more powerful agencies determined that the Labour Party shall become a Workers’ Party. [15]

If a ‘separate party of Left-Wingers’ was a weapon in the hands of the reactionaries then how did Saklatvala see the Communist Party? Obviously more as a wing of the Labour Party than as a revolutionary organisation with a goal all of its own.

In February 1926, in a series of articles on What is this Left Wing?, Willie Paul outlined how, when Labour came to power on a socialist programme (such as anti-imperialism, nationalisation, workers’ control and a levy on capital), the government would be bound to its promises:

We know that it may be almost impossible to get the present right-wing leaders of the Labour Party to carry out the socialist policy we have outlined ... [So we must pass resolutions that] clearly state that any future Labour premier and Cabinet should be elected at a specially summoned joint conference of the Labour Party and Trade Unions. [16]

Any resemblance to political organisations of the mid-1980s and their programmes is by no means accidental.

It was tragic that the Communist Party should lose faith in itself as a revolutionary party in outright opposition to reformist politics. But there were powerful forces pushing it in this mistaken direction.


1. Second Congress of the Communist International, vol. 2, pp. 183–4.

2. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 188.

3. Communist Unity Convention, pp. 39–40.

4. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 183.

5. The Communist, 12 August 1922.

6. Communist Review, March 1923.

7. Workers’ Weekly, 8 February 1924.

8. Workers’ Weekly, 15 February 1924.

9. Workers’ Weekly, 28 May 1925.

10. Sunday Worker, 27 September 1925.

11. Sunday Worker, 20 December 1925.

12. Sunday Worker, 20 December 1925.

13. Sunday Worker, 18 October 1925.

14. Sunday Worker, 25 October 1925.

15. Sunday Worker, 29 November 1925.

16. Sunday Worker, 26 February 1926.


A. Arthur Henderson was leader of the Labour Party during the First World War.

Last updated on 15 August 2014