Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Thirteen:
Views from outside: Trotsky and the Comintern

THE DRIFT of the CPGB towards tailing the left bureaucracy of the unions and Labour Party can be seen partly as a result of the Comintern’s confused policies, as well as the mistakes of the British Communists themselves. The orientation of the International compounded the political weaknesses of the CPGB instead of correcting its course, and this was particularly marked after ill-health forced the departure of Lenin from the scene.

Pressure from the Comintern came in two ways. On the trade union front the promotion of an unprincipled international unity, at any cost, led to the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. This deal gagged criticism of the trade union bureaucracy as a whole. For as Losovsky made clear, to ask anything of the officials might jeopardise the cordial relations the Russian state bureaucracy wished to foster:

To go to the reformists and say: ‘Refuse to go into coalition with the bourgeoisie’, means that we demand from them the impossible, and we should know beforehand that the reformists cannot accept such a proposal ... we know what an abyss divides the reformists from us Communists ... but nevertheless, we propose the calling of an international congress. [1]

There was no common ground yet the Communists wanted an agreement. Obviously this could be bought only by abandoning the revolutionary principles that made the reformists hostile.

This thoroughly opportunist position was disguised by a lot of left rhetoric about the right-wing union leaders being ‘social fascists’. At RILU’s Third Congress in 1924 Losovsky announced that ‘three-quarters of the reformist trade union leaders have become fascist’ [2] This nonsense was used as a smokescreen to excuse the alliance with the left bureaucrats which, because it committed the latter to nothing, was worthless. [A]

The second area in which the Comintern spread confusion was concerning the role and significance of the revolutionary party. At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in June/July 1924 Zinoviev, referring to the CPGB and its leaders, such as Bob Stewart and Arthur MacManus, made this cryptic comment:

In England, we are now going through the beginning of a new chapter in the labour movement. We do not know whether the Communist Mass Party of England will come, whether only through the Stewart-MacManus door – or through some other door. And it is entirely possible, comrades, that the Communist Mass Party may still appear through still another door – we cannot lose sight of that fact. [3]

Zinoviev was looking for a short cut. By talking of this mysterious ‘other door’, he implied that a mass revolutionary party could be built by the current around the Labour and TUC lefts. This ludicrous notion, that left reformist bureaucrats would somehow play a role with which they did not agree and which meant their own dethronement, led away from the construction of a conscious revolutionary organisation.

This tendency was, however, well disguised. Zinoviev talked a lot about the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the various Communist Parties, which in actual fact meant subordination to the dictates of Moscow. The truth was that in regard to Britain he was abandoning the Bolshevik tradition of the revolutionary party.

In the whole of the international Communist movement the only major figure to stand out against the drift towards Stalinism, and maintain a Marxist analysis of the British situation, was Leon Trotsky. He was able to do this notwithstanding his poor sources of information. Indeed, he was in many ways misinformed since, as we have seen, the British Communist Party had no more understanding of major political events such as Red Friday or the Scarborough TUC than they did of their own role and influence.

This meant that some of Trotsky’s formulations were wrong or telescoped events. He especially exaggerated the subjective preparedness of the Communist forces, thus thinking revolution far closer than it was. Marxism does not claim to be infallible; what it does is use a scientific theory of society, coupled with an ability to learn from the class war, to correct mistakes and enhance the intervention of revolutionaries in the struggle for socialism. This correct use of the Marxist method shines out of Trotsky’s writings on Britain in the mid-1920s.

His first concern was to reassert the central importance of building a party of revolutionaries committed to the overthrow of capitalism. This ran directly contrary to Zinoviev’s hints that there might be some easier and less painful path to workers’ power through alliances with reformist leaders:

The Communist Party will ... be able to take the lead of the working class only insofar as it enters into an implacable conflict with the conservative bureaucracy and the Labour Party. The Communist Party can prepare itself for the leading role only by a ruthless criticism of all the leading staff of the British labour movement. [4]

Trotsky ended his important book Where is Britain Going? (1925) with these words which must be read as a polemic against Zinoviev:

The whole world situation and the role of the British proletariat in production and in society will guarantee its victory – on condition that there is a correct and resolute revolutionary leadership. The Communist Party must develop and come to power as the party of proletarian dictatorship. There are no ways round this. Whoever believes there are, and propounds them, can only deceive British workers. This is the main conclusion of our analysis. [5]

Trotsky insisted again and again on the dangers of tailing the left bureaucrats or minimising the importance of building a revolutionary party. Thus in January 1926 he wrote:

The ideological and organisational formation of a genuinely revolutionary, that is of a communist, party ... is conceivable only under the condition of a perpetual, systematic, inflexible, untiring and irreconcilable unmasking of the quasi-left leaders of every hue, of their compromises and of their reticence. It would be the crudest blunder to think ... that the task of the struggle for a united front consists in obtaining a victory for Purcell, Lansbury, Wheatley and Kirkwood [B] over Snowden, Webb and MacDonald. [6]

Trotsky made absolutely no concession to any of the left bureaucrats, not even to Cook, who was the most radical of them. He always mentioned Cook in the same breath as Hicks, Purcell and the other lefts. For example on 5 March 1926 he wrote:

Both the rights and the lefts, including of course both Purcell and Cook, fear to the utmost the beginning of the denouément. Even when they in words admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution, they are hoping in their hearts for some miracle that will release them from these perspectives. And in any event they themselves will stall, evade, temporise, shift responsibility and effectively assist Thomas over any really major question of the British labour movement. [7]

Trotsky saw straight through the tinsel and glitter of the Scarborough TUC that had so mesmerised Murphy:

The resolutions of the congress were the more to the left the further removed they were from immediate practical tasks ... to think that the leading figures at Scarborough might become the leaders of a revolutionary overthrow of power would be to lull oneself with illusions ... It must be clearly understood: this sort of leftism remains only as long as it does not impose any practical obligations. As soon as a question of action arises the lefts respectfully surrender the leadership to the rights. [8]

This was written months before the betrayal of the General Strike on 13 May 1926 which so astounded British socialists!

Trotsky’s analysis did not mean that the Communist Party should merely criticise from the sidelines, however. It had to intervene, but in a principled and clear way:

The trade unions are the main mass organisations in Britain. But the struggle for influence with the masses organised in these unions should in no case lead to bowing down before the conservative forms of trade unions in the spirit of completely opportunistic tail-ending formations. The more rapid the revolutionary development in Britain and the more sharply new organisational forms (shop stewards, action committees) are counterposed to the old ones, not in circumvention of the trade unions but based on them – the more attention the British Communists should pay to the formation and development of new organisational forms based on the mass movement. [9]

A strategy for the Minority Movement which led away from dependence on the official union machine is evidently suggested here.

There might, on the other hand, be a case for creating a united front with left bureaucrats as long as the purpose and limitations of this are understood. For this argument Trotsky used Lenin as his authority:

Lenin allowed the possibility of a temporary bloc even with opportunist leaders under the condition that there would be a sharp and audacious turn and a break based on the actions of the masses when these leaders began to pull back, oppose or betray. [10]

But as Trotsky went on to stress, at no time are the needs of the working class or the revolutionary party to be subordinated to maintaining such a bloc.

We can see how Trotsky understood the united front in his treatment of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. The quality of his analysis stands out even though he ultimately changed his mind about the value of establishing the committee in the first place. In July 1926 he wrote the following:

We were absolutely correct to conclude this alliance when we did, but in order to turn it against the opportunists; in order to push vacillating leaders forward as far as possible; and in order to expose them and break with them in the event of their betrayal. [11] [C]

Yet even at this time Trotsky was insistent that the committee could only be strictly temporary and a means to expose the bureaucrats through their failure to honour their radical promises. He was therefore appalled when the Russian leaders decided to keep the committee going even after the betrayal of the General Strike.

By 1928, if not before, it was clear to Trotsky that the strategy of the joint committee had been false all along, not so much for formal reasons, but because the intention of its Russian creators had never been to use the committee as a united front to enhance the revolutionary struggle in Britain:

The point of departure of the Anglo-Russian Committee, as we have already seen, was the impatient urge to leap over the young and too slowly developing communist party. This invested the entire experience with a false character even prior to the general strike. [12]

On every major question in British politics preceding the General Strike, Trotsky offered by far the best approach available. His brilliant characterisation of the intellectual shallowness, religiosity and vacillating nature of the MacDonalds and Thornases is as fresh today as it ever was. Furthermore, it is just as appropriate to their modern equivalents as it was in 1925 and 1926. Trotsky saw straight through the seeming differences between these right-wing reformists and the more left-sounding George Lansbury in the Labour Party, or union leaders such as Cook, Purcell and Hicks. Beneath the appearance he divined the common reformist and bureaucratic ties.

Though incorrect in some details, Trotsky’s penetrating analysis overcame the great geographical distance and paucity of information which cut him off from Britain. His skill came from the depth of his Marxism. Unlike so many who were caught up in the degeneration of the Russian revolution, Trotsky kept a firm grasp of the two fundamental lessons of Bolshevism – that a victorious struggle depended on the leadership which only a revolutionary party could offer, and that the emancipation of the working class could not come through bureaucrats, however radical they might sound, but only through the activity of the working class itself. There was no other way, however much the Communist Party leaders in London and Moscow would have preferred it.

In the faction fight that was fought in the Russian Communist Party and the International, the British sided with the majority Stalinist faction and so Trotsky’s advice was not taken. The result was tragic. The period from the foundation of the British Communist Party to 1926 was filled with many events – Black Friday 1921, the engineers’ lockout of 1922, the founding of the Minority Movement, Red Friday among others. At each point there were tactical choices to be made. These could have been decided in a Marxist direction, but unfortunately they were all too often influenced by the weak leadership of Zinoviev and later by Stalin. This was to be a determining factor in the development of the CPGB. If Trotsky and the Bolshevik tradition he represented had led the Comintern there is no doubt that many mistaken judgements would not have been made. The opportunities for building a healthy Marxist party in Britain certainly existed, but they were simply not taken as a result.


1. International Trade Union Unity (London 1925), p. 19.

2. Protokoll über den Dritten Kongress der Roten Gewerkschafts-Internationale, Moscow 6–21 July 1924 (no place of publication given), p. 45. (Report of RILU Third Congress)

3. International Trade Union Unity, p. 18.

4. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 119.

5. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 122.

6. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 136.

7. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 141.

8. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, pp. 138–9.

9. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 192.

10. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 192.

11. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 191.

12. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, p. 97.


A. The theory of social fascism had not been developed at this time, but was to become the cornerstone of the ultra-left turn made by the Comintern in 1928.

B. Lansbury, Wheatley and Kirkwood were the current heroes of the left in the Labour Party.

C. This resolution was also signed by Zinoviev, Kamenev, Pyatakov and Krupskaya, and it is possible that Trotsky’s argument was tailored to fit these people. However, Trotsky argued the same thing – that it was correct to establish the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee – elsewhere at this time, and it seems likely therefore that this was his considered opinion.

Last updated on 15 August 2014