Duncan Hallas

The Communist Party and the General Strike

(May 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.88, May 1976, pp.16-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE Communist Party of Great Britain was founded in the summer of 1920. It was founded as a revolutionary party, specifically rejecting reformism and the “parliamentary road to socialism”. Within six years it faced its biggest test – and biggest opportunity – a profound social crisis and a direct challenge to the power of the state by millions of organised workers.

The general strike of May 1926 was a decisive turning point in British history – and it was an unmitigated defeat for the working class. It brought to an end a long, though not uninterrupted, period of working class militancy, led to the prolonged dominance of the unions by their openly class collaborationist right wing and to the massive reinforcement of Labour Party reformism at the expense of the revolutionary left.

The revolutionary left means, in that period, the Communist Party. Everyone who was worth anything in the British revolutionary movement was, by 1925, inside the CPGB. Outside it were only the ossifying shells of irrelevant sectlets (SLP, SPGB) whose genuinely revolutionary elements had gone over to the CP.

Outside too, were large numbers of class conscious workers, many of them in the Minority Movement and (after December 1925) the National Left-Wing Movement. But the CP was the motor and guiding force of these considerable movements. And they were considerable.

By March 1926 the Minority Movement was able to claim the support of trade union bodies representing 957,000 workers. The Left-Wing Movement (operating inside the Labour Party) included some 50 constituency and borough Labour Parties who were refusing to operate the ban on Communists forced through the 1925 Labour Party Conference by the right wing. The Sunday Worker, a “non-party” paper standing “for the side of the workers in the class struggle”, which acted as spokesman for both movements, had “a stable circulation of 85,000 copies a week” and an occasional sale of nearly 100,000 by early 1926. [1] Its editor was, of course, a leading CP member acting under party discipline.

Though the Communist Party itself was still very small (around 5,000 members), it had built a big periphery and had considerable influence in the trade union movement. What it did, or failed to do, mattered. It influenced the course of events. It was a real factor in the situation.

James Klugmann, in an article to which I will return [2], claims that the party members played a role “out of all proportion to their numbers” during the strike itself. That is absolutely true. Indeed, it is too modest a claim. Not only during the nine days, but in the whole period leading up to them, the Communist Party as a party played a most influential role.

The question is: were its strategy and political line correct in the circumstances? How well did it meet the test of crisis and opportunity? This is not a matter of mere antiquarian interest. It is a matter of the highest political importance. The precise circumstances of May 1926 will never recur. The situation of profound social crisis and class confrontation will recur. The whole point of examining the role of the Communist Party in 1924-26 is to learn, from its successes and its failures, to better equip ourselves to meet the test to come.

It must be said at once that, in one respect, the CPGB passed the test of 1926 with the highest honours. The dedication, initiative, heroism and self-sacrifice of its members has never been excelled in the whole history of the British workers’ movement. Klugmann justly comments “when one studies who were the editors of the most militant bulletins or looks at the lists of arrests, one finds, in numbers out of all proportion to their 5000 strong organisation at the time, members of the Communist Party ...” [3]

Any revolutionary who criticises the political line of the party in that crisis must first pay tribute to the integrity and steadiness under fire of the CP rank and file and leadership alike, in the face of a selective but nonetheless brutal repression such as few of us, in the revolutionary movement today, have yet had to face.

During the nine days of the strike the figure of arrests rose daily, with Communists and miners the principal targets ... most of the sentences were two to six months ... over 1,200 (between one fourth and one fifth of the pre-strike membership) Communist Party members had suffered ... [4]

There were 9,000 arrests all told. Over 13 per cent were CP members (24 per cent of the CP membership) as compared with an arrest rate of 0.2 per cent for TUC affiliated trade unionists as a whole (4,365,619 affiliated members in 1926). Not many of the convicted CP members were likely to get work again for many a year.

Moreover, the entire top leadership of the CP had already been arrested, tried for sedition and sentenced to six or 12 months’ imprisonment in October 1925; “perhaps the greatest compliment that capitalism could have paid to the role of the Communist Party in preparing the working-class side for the coming general strike,” says Klugmann and he is right. The ruling class feared the CPGB in 1925-26.

But this record, magnificent as it is, does not exhaust the matter. Given its success in overcoming sectarianism and developing a broad class struggle movement, given the courage and determination of party members, the question remains: was the CP’s political line correct?

Trotsky, and the Left Opposition in the USSR, argued at the time that it was not, that, in spite of its splendid fighting spirit, the CPGB contributed to the defeat, the shattering defeat, of 1926; and that it did so, under the influence of the Communist International, because it failed to fight hard against the widespread illusions in the TUC’s “left wing”.

Some of Trotsky’s arguments belong to the past and have only a historical interest. But most of them are as relevant today as when they were first made, for the “lefts” are still with us.

On this 50th anniversary of the British general strike the most important thing for revolutionaries to do in the midst of all the celebratory sentimentalism and sogginess, is to look critically, yet again, at the whole problem of the relationship of left reformists and centrists to the revolutionary movement and of the nature of the trade union bureaucracy in times of crisis. A study of the events of 1924-26 is crucial for this purpose.

Three books, which serve to highlight the issues, have recently appeared. They are Essays on the History of Communism in Britain by Woodhouse and Pearce (New Park, £1.50), Trade Unions and Revolution by Hinton and Hyman (Pluto Press, 90p) and 1926: The General Strike edited by Skelley (Lawrence and Wishart, £2.00).

The first of the three repeats and develops the arguments of the Left Opposition and subsequent Trotskyist writers. The second argues that, from a revolutionary standpoint, the traditional Trotskyist viewpoint is mistaken. The third is the expression of Communist Party politics today, made retrospective to 1926.

But first, a brief reminder of the course of events.

Towards the crunch

“Yes. All the workers in this country have got to face a reduction in wages ... to help put industry on its feet.” (Prime Minister Baldwin, July 1925)

We are entering upon a new stage of development in the upward struggle of our class ... The new phase of development, which is world wide, has entered on the next and probably the last stage of revolt. It is the duty of all members of the working class so to solidify their movements that, come when the time may for the last final struggle, we shall be wanting neither machinery nor men to move forward to the destruction of wage-slavery and the construction of a new order of society ... (Lon Swales, Presidential address to the TUC, September 1925)

IN October 1924 the Conservatives under Baldwin regained power, replacing the first Labour government. In April 1925 the government took Britain back onto the gold standard at the pre-war rate of £1 = $4.86, an act of currency revaluation which made British exports significantly dearer. On 30 June the mine-owners gave four weeks’ notice to terminate the current agreement and demanded heavy cuts in wages, a lengthening of the working day and the end of the national minimum rate.

The coal industry then had a much greater weight in the economy than it has now. Although it was already in decline, 267 million tons were hewed in 1924 (as compared to 287 million in 1913 and 133 million in 1970-71), nearly 80 million tons were exported and 1,214,000 workers employed.

Moreover, the Miners’ Federation, with around a million members, was by far the largest and most powerful of the unions. To break its strength was a prime objective of the government and the employers, a necessity for them if wages generally were to be forced down in the deflationary conditions of the time.

In 1919 the miners had demanded both a wage increase and nationalisation of the industry and had backed the demands by the threat of an unlimited national stoppage. In the near-revolutionary atmosphere of that year, and conditions of acute post-war coal shortage, the “national” government of Lloyd George backtracked, appointed the Sankey Commission-which duly recommended nationalisation-and thus bought time, as the Federation leadership agreed to suspend strike action.

The promise of nationalisation (the government had pledged itself to implement the Sankey recommendations) was naturally disregarded as soon as the crisis was over: “before the end of 1919 the danger-point for capitalism was passed”. [5]

In the autumn of 1920 a two-week national strike gained a temporary wage increase but in April 1921, with the post-war slump well underway and coal stocks high, the employers imposed a national lock-out in pursuit of drastic wage-cuts.

The Miners Federation appealed to its partners in the Triple Alliance (the NUR and the Transport Workers) for supporting strike action and, initially, their executives agreed to stand by the terms of the alliance and call out their members from 15 April. Then they ratted. Thomas, Cramp, Bevin and Williams (an ex-CP member), the railway and transport workers’ leaders, telegraphed their branches on Friday 15th, Black Friday, calling off the stoppage.

“Yesterday was the heaviest defeat that has befallen the labour movement within memory of man,” declared the Daily Herald next day. “It is no use trying to minimise it. It is no use pretending that it is other than it is. We on this paper have said throughout that if the organised workers would stand together they would win. They have not stood together and they have reaped the reward.” [6]

This pre-view of the 1926 sell-out produced massive cynicism and demoralisation and it was followed next year by the national engineering lock-out; the AEU and 46 smaller unions were locked out for 13 weeks and finally forced to concede practically all the employers’ demands. Total trade union membership fell by nearly three million between 1921 and 1925, a decline only partly accounted for by the rise in unemployment.

But the defeats of 1921-22 were not decisive. The miners withstood the lock-out for three months and the eventual settlement, though very unfavourable, left their organisation intact. In 1923-24, taking advantage of the French occupation of the Ruhr (which dislocated the coal production of Germany, the other major European coal exporter), the Miners Federation was able to mount a limited offensive and secure wage increases. And a modest economic upturn was in progress.

Moreover, in 1924-25, the tide in the trade union movement was flowing strongly leftwards. The Minority Movement, founded in 1924 around the slogans “Stop the Retreat”, “Back to the Unions”, was gaining considerable influence, as has already been noted.

At the same time the “official” movement was coming under the influence of a group of leftish officials. They included Fred Bramley, TUC General Secretary, Walter Citrine, his deputy, Lon Swales of the AEU (TUC President 1925), Alf Purcell of the Furnishing Trades (TUC President 1924), George Hicks of the AUBTW and, notably, A.J. Cook, recently elected General Secretary of the Miners Federation on the Minority Movement ticket.

All these men spoke in class-struggle terms and maintained some sort of relationship with the Minority Movement-and through it with the CP. The most notorious right-winger in the movement, J.H. Thomas of the NUR, had left the General Council temporarily to become MacDonald’s Colonial Secretary and his departure strengthened the swing to the left. And from the spring of 1925, the TUC collaborated with “Red Russia” through the Anglo-Soviet Joint Trade Union Advisory Committee (British representatives: Hicks, Purcell, Swales), a fact that gave the General Councillors a certain “revolutionary” aura.

And so it came about that, when faced with the mine-owners’ ultimatum of June 1925, the Miners Federation appealed to the TUC, it was answered, on 30 July, by a Conference of Executives’ decision for a total embargo on the movement of coal.

Next day, Red Friday, the government backed down. A nine-month subsidy for the coal-owners was announced, the ultimatum was withdrawn and yet another Royal Commission (the Samuel Commission) set up to repeat the Sankey manoeuvre.

The General Council proclaimed: “The manifestation of solidarity which has been exhibited by all sections of the trade union movement is a striking portent for the future and marks an epoch in the history of the movement.” [7]

Of course, the confrontation had merely been postponed by the government’s tactical retreat. The question now was which side would prepare most effectively for the inevitable battle. The CP understood this perfectly. “Behind this truce and the industrial peace talk which will accompany it,”’ declared the Workers’ Weekly. “The capitalist class will prepare for a crushing attack on the workers. If the workers are duped by the peace talk and do not make effective counter- preparations, then they are doomed to shattering defeat.” [8]

But who could be relied upon to make effective preparations? The General Council? The left-wing of the General Council? Or must preparation also take place independently of the officials? This was the absolutely crucial problem during the nine months’ truce. And it is here that the CP failed politically. It did little to combat illusions in the “left” officials, indeed it often encouraged them. It put its trust in the “left” officials.

Illusion and reality: 1925-26

“... the thing is not finished. The danger is not over. Sooner or later this question has got to be f4ught out by the people of the land. Is England to be governed by Parliament and by the cabinet or by a handful of trade union leaders?” (Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Home Secretary, August 1925)

“The more left the Congress decisions are, the further away they are from immediate practical tasks ... to think that the leaders of the Scarborough Congress could become leaders of a revolutionary upheaval would be lulling oneself to sleep with illusions.” (Trotsky, January 1926)

THE Scarborough Trades Union Congress (September 1925) marked the high tide of left-wing rhetoric in the official movement.

The Workers’ Weekly was enthusiastic:

The Congress was intent on its work from start to finish. When Swales delivered his opening speech, the real temper of the Congress began to manifest itself The more militant became the mood, the more delegates responded to his fighting challenge. [9]

A whole series of left wing motions was carried. “The British Empire was condemned; the Dawes Plan (for the reconstruction of Europe on the basis of American capital) was opposed; plans for united work with Russian Trade Unions were endorsed; a resolution calling for the development and strengthening of workshop organisation so as to struggle ‘in conjunction with the Party of the workers for the overthrow of capitalism’ was carried.” [10]

Of course, all this represented something real. The movement was recovering from 1921 and 1922. There was a big swing to the left at the grassroots. To fail to recognise this, and to build upon it, would have been bone-headed sectarian stupidity. The CP cannot be faulted on these grounds. It both responded to and helped to focus the swing to the left.

But, equally, it was clear enough to many communists at the time that the “lefts” were riding the tide and that their militant rhetoric was highly suspect. As Trotsky wrote, early in January 1926:

In the British labour movement, international questions have always been the line of least resistance to the leaders . Regarding international matters as a kind of safety-valve for the radical moods of the masses, these esteemed leaders are prepared to a certain extent even to bow to a revolution (elsewhere) so that they can take still more revenge on questions of the internal class struggle. The left faction of the General Council is distinguished by its complete ideological shapelessness and is therefore incapable of organisationally assuming the leadership of the trade union movement. [11]

Exactly right. One thing, and one thing only, mattered during the nine months truce; political and organisational preparation for the inevitable struggle with the whole power of the British capitalist state and with its agents in the labour movement.

Immediately after Red Friday the government, acting literally as “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie”, began its preparations. These were directed “by Sir John Anderson, who had already had experience of civil war in Ireland ...” [12] The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies was established. The country was divided into ten districts, each under a Commissioner, with his own apparatus and chain of command, troop deployments were adjusted accordingly and an energetic stock-piling of coal was got underway. “War Game” exercises were carried out to test the efficiency of the state machine. And the CP leadership was railroaded into Wandsworth jail.

Yet these organisational preparations, impressive as they were, were not the only – or even the most important side of the matter. The ruling class had an immensely shrewd political leader, Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin set himself two apparently contradictory political aims. On the one hand the middle classes had to be aroused and organised in support of the state machine for a decisive conflict with the unions. Baldwin wanted a fight, and his pacific talk was, as the CP repeatedly said, a mere smokescreen to enable him to fight at the moment of his own choosing.

But Baldwin did not want a fight to the finish. He meant to break the strength of the unions by first forcing a confrontation and then using the trade union leaders to repeat, on a greater scale, the betrayal of Black Friday.

He understood better than some of his more impulsive and pugnacious colleagues, and better than many would-be Marxists, the Marxist truth that conditions determine consciousness and that the trade union bureaucracy, as a social group, is a privileged and therefore a conservative layer. He understood too, that bourgeois democracy needs a reformist labour bureaucracy, cannot function for long without one under modern conditions. And so he set out to shape the situation, combining conciliation with ruthlessness, cultivating the heroes of the General Council at the same time that he marshalled the forces of the state to inflict a crippling defeat on the unions.

And on our side? Nothing whatever was done by the TUC. “No organisation, local or national, to carry out a general strike was countenanced, let alone started. For example, proposals for a Workers’ Defence Corps were rejected in alarm ... The Council, indeed, re-affirmed its support for, the miners, but many of its members had reached the conclusion that a fall in wages was inevitable.” [13]

In fact the last thing they wanted was a fight. And this was as true of most of the “lefts” as it was of the right-wing. The leaders, left and right alike, drifted, hoping desperately for a face-saving compromise, gulled by Baldwin, terrified at the position they found themselves in, they laid the basis for the defeat. Even Klugmann admits: “Preparations for the coming struggle by the leaders of the Labour Party and TUC were as vague and ineffective as those of the government were precise and ruthless.” [14] He is too kind. The only preparation were those of the right-wing for a sell-out: the “lefts” performed their predictable role as a cover for the right.

Predictable and predicted. Not only Trotsky, but also some leaders of the CPGB understood the role the “lefts” would play. “It would be a suicidal policy for the CP and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on the official left wing,” wrote J.R. Campbell in the Communist Review, the party’s theoretical journal, in October 1924: “It is the duty of the Party and the Minority Movement to criticise its weakness relentlessly and endeavour to change the muddled and incomplete left-wing views of the more progressive leaders into a real revolutionary viewpoint.” [15]

In fact this “suicidal policy” was precisely the policy adopted by the CP in the vital period between the summer of 1925 and the general strike.

Brian Pearce’s summary is grimly accurate:

At the second annual conference of the National Minority Movement, in August (1925), stress was laid on the granting of full powers to the General Council, with only a brief and vague reference to “obligation ... to use that power to fight more effectively the battles of the workers”, contrasting with the careful indication of the need to develop control from below, lest the General Council use any increase in powers to betray the workers, which had been a feature of the previous year’s decisions. Dutt’s Notes of the Month in the Labour Monthly for September left nothing to chance, stressing the need for increased powers for the General Council without even a formal warning or qualification. The helpless trading behind Purcell and Co to which the Communist Party had been reduced found pitiful expression in Dutt’s Notes of the Month in the Labour Monthly for November, where he tried to explain away the fact that Purcell and Co, those great left-wingers, the darlings of the Kremlin, had not lifted a finger to prevent the exclusion of the Communists from the Labour Party when this was reaffirmed at the Liverpool Conference in (November) 1925. They had “failed even to attempt to put up a fight”; the trouble was that they lacked “self-confidence”, and “to overcome this weakness” was “an essential task for the future”. Wagging his finger, Dutt told these future betrayers of the general strike that they had “acted very foolishly”. At the enlarged plenum of the Comintern executive in February 1926, George Hardy could cheerfully answer foreign comrades who wondered whether the campaign for “All Power to the General Council”, unlinked with a struggle for democratising the unions and with factory committees still “music of the future”, might not prove misconceived, by saying: “Should they use that power wrongly, it only means that we have got an additional task before us of forcing them in the right direction, which direction they must ultimately take.” (My emphasis – DH) [16]

Incredible blindness! Now these were not accidental figures. George Hardy was the General Secretary of the Minority Movement at the time and Palme Dutt was the party’s theoretician and was believed, rightly, to have his own direct line to Moscow.

And so the right-wing prepared the sell-out, the “lefts” provided camouflage for the right and the CP and the Minority Movement helped to preserve the credibility of the “lefts”. Instead of the “relentless criticism” demanded by Campbell – and more sharply and urgently by Trotsky – there was, as Pearce says, “a policy of unlimited confidence in the Purcell group and subordination of the British Communist Party to this group”. [17] Instead of a barrage of the plainest and sharpest warnings against the labour lieutenants of capitalism, there was a lulling oneself to sleep with illusions

What has Klugmann to say about this catastrophic political failure? Here is his considered view:

A number of prominent trade union leaders had at that time taken up progressive attitudes on a number of issues, including trade union internationalism. Communists and militants throughout this period never separated their call for a militant General Council with increased powers from their appeal for struggles to achieve the strengthening of the movement from below with Factory Committees, reinforced Trades Councils, Councils of Action. These struggles to strengthen the trade union movement from below, and for Councils of Action in particular, became more and more the central demand.

But even when this is said, it is questionable whether it was correct to demand increased power for the General Council without’ making clear that no such powers should be given to a General Council that was preparing to use those powers against the interests of the working class. The slogan was one that demanded great care and precision in formulation which in this period was sometimes lacking. [18]

Now this is no defence at all. The whole point is that the “prominent trade union leaders” who had adopted “progressive attitudes on a number of questions, including trade union internationalism” were about to betray the movement at the time of greatest crisis, that they did in fact betray it, and that it should have been and was obvious in advance that this was the case.

The CP leaders knew perfectly well that the crisis was at hand. Their publications proclaimed it, week after week. They knew of the government’s preparations, they knew what Baldwin was up to and they knew of the General Council’s refusal to prepare for the struggle. They knew that Bevin, Pugh and Thomas (re-elected to the General Council at that famous militant Congress at Scarborough) had a proven record of treachery and they knew that Hicks, Purcell, Swales and the rest were doing nothing to expose it or prepare their members to resist.

They knew all these things and they failed to sound the clarion call of alarm. That is the indictment and Klugmann tells us in reply that the call for All Power to the General Council of betrayers “demanded great care and precision in formulation which in this period was sometimes lacking”!

Could we have won?

“But it would be the greatest ignominy to shirk a struggle against opportunism in the leadership by reference to the profound revolutionary processes that are taking place within the working class. This seemingly ‘deep’ approach arises entirely from not understanding the role and importance of the party in a working class movement, particularly in a revolution. Indeed it is always the centrists who have screened and will continue to screen opportunist sins by profoundly thoughtful references to objective tendencies of development ... In reality, this pretended revolutionary objectivism only expresses a desire to evade revolutionary tasks by transferring them onto the shoulders of a so-called historic process.” (Trotsky, January 1926)

TIME ran out. “The subsidy ended, the owners demanded their wage cuts, the government refused assistance. The Labour leaders, in Thomas’s words ‘begged and pleaded ... almost grovelling’. But the government had decided ...” [19] The moment had come for Baldwin to put the boot in, to kick the Thomases (and the Swaleses) in the teeth and face them with the consequences of their proud boasts. Fight, or abject surrender.

Under the pressure of the miners, of the Minority Movement and of large sections of their rank and file, a special conference of executives voted, on May Day 1926, by 3,653,529 to 49,911 to call a general strike.

We are told that Ramsay MacDonald joined in the “tumultuous singing” of the Red Flag when the result was declared!

But the General Council, far from improvising – even at this late date – the means to direct a coordinated struggle, continued to pester the government for terms for a negotiated surrender. They were rudely rebuffed. The government was bent on achieving nothing less than an unconditional surrender and broke off negotiations on a transparent pretext. It forced the wretched misleaders of the movement to carry out their threat, in the confident and well-justified expectation that they feared victory far, far more than they feared defeat and would soon act accordingly. They did. On May 12th they capitulated and called off the strike.

The story of the nine days has often been told. It is retold in Skelley’s General Strike, and the nine regional studies and six personal reminiscences make this a book well worth careful perusal. It is also absolutely clear about three central facts: that the working class response to the strike call was overwhelmingly solid – “for the TUC leadership, the success of the strike was both unexpected and acutely worrying” [20], that the TUC leadership was determined to sell-out from the outset – “the right-wing was scared above all that, as the strike continued, leadership would pass more and more to the left” [21], and that the effect of the sell-out was devastating.

Could the outcome have been different? Obviously the answer to this boils down to two other questions. Could the CP, in the circumstances of the time, have been expected to pursue a more realistic policy? Given that it could, and had, was it strong enough to have swung the mass movement out of the control of the betrayers?

The second question is essentially unanswerable with any certainty. In the last resort, such questions are answered only in struggle and the failure of the CP to challenge the “lefts” for leadership ensured that this struggle did not take place. But there are some pointers. The Tory cabinet minister Davidson, a close political associate of Baldwin, wrote after the event:

In January 1924 the Communist International had thrown its full weight behind the United Front tactics and was prepared to use them in the factories and trade unions which were the natural link between the Communist Party and the workers ... We were particularly worried by the strength of the Minority Movement in the mining industry and by the attempts to organise the unemployed ... MacDonald’s failure to act, and the mounting unemployment figures while the Labour Party had been in office, made for a growing dissillusion in the Labour movement that was dangerous. [22]

The enemy general staff, then, treated the threat of the CP with deadly seriousness. So did the right-wing Labourites. “... every day that the strike proceeded,” said Charles Dukes of the GMWU, “the control and authority was passing out of the hands of responsible, executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no responsibility.” [23]

In the opinion of its enemies, there was a fighting chance that the CP could have wrested control from the traitors. But, of course, that chance really depended on a persistent fight, during, the nine month truce, against the fatal illusions in the General Council. What prevented this?

For James Klugmann the problem does not exist. “Looking back,” he writes, “it is clear that there were in the party’s approaches many weaknesses. But in my opinion, on all essentials its stand was correct.” [24] (Emphasis original)

All essentials? “All Power to the General Council”, that was correct? The cover-up for the TUC “lefts”, that was correct? Or are these not essentials?

Here is what the Executive Committee of the Communist International had to say on 8 June 1926:

The left leaders, who had a majority in the General Council, put, up no resistance whatever to the deliberate traitors like Thomas, but marched all the time under the right-wing orders. In fact Thomas and Co ran the General Council throughout the course of the strike ... Thus the “left” objectively played an even more shameful role ... [25]

Is this true or is it not? And if it is true, how could the CP line of reliance on these same “lefts” be other than disastrously wrong?

Klugmann’s explanation of the debacle: that the party was too small: “... it had neither the influence nor the membership to develop a united left that could take over the leadership from the reformists,” [26] will not do at all. He writes as if the party had fought through 1925 to May 1926 on its 1924 policy and, in the end, had been unable, for sheer lack of numbers, to turn the tide. But he knows that the party did no such thing. And he must know too, as the party’s official historian, that the change in line was connected with the episode of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee.

The facts are that the leadership of the by now bureaucratised Russian CP and the Communist International put very great store on their relationship with the TUC, that the “lefts” were the principal supporters of the ASTUC on the British side and that, as Pearce says, “any demands and activities which might antagonise them... (were) abandoned or played down.” [27]

For the sake of “international unity” – a unity which proved quite spurious for the TUC General Council abandoned the ASTUC as soon as its usefulness as “left cover” was over – the CPGB abandoned a revolutionary attitude and policy for diplomatic evasions and opportunism.

It is not in the least surprising that Klugmann and his colleagues will not admit all this. Their view of the past is coloured by the CP’s even more opportunist adaption today to sections of the trade union bureaucracy that are by no means so “left” as Hicks, Purcell and Swales were in their time.

But Hinton and Hyman, who have no illusions about “left” bureaucrats, also play down the role of the Communist International and its Stalinist leadership:

... it is untrue that the Communist International was pulling the British Party to the right: almost always the CPGB itself stood to the right of the majority in the International. Thus we insist that it is primarily in terms of the domestic situation, rather than the politics of the Comintern, that the history of the early British party is to be explained. [28]

What these authors show is that there was considerable confusion at the top of the CPGB itself, that definite “native” opportunist tendencies existed there and that a number of CP leaders had quite genuine illusions in the Purcell group.

Let us concede all this. There is undoubtedly a good deal of truth in it. Let us further concede, for the sake of argument, what is by no means certain; that left to itself the CPGB would have followed the same opportunist line, in spite of the critical attitude of at least some CP leaders to the TUC “lefts”. To state this argument is to demonstrate that it is quite unreal.

For the CPGB was not and could not be left to itself. It was part of a centralised world movement. It owed its very existence to the Russian revolution. Its leaders and members were profoundly influenced by advice and guidance (leave aside the question of “orders”) from the Moscow centre.

How could it be otherwise? The Russians “had made their revolution”. To the relatively small and weak British party, the Russians were the natural source of political inspiration. Even if the CPGB had not been heavily dependent financially on the Comintern – and it was dependent in this period – it would still have deferred to the Comintern Executive.

The fact is that Stalin and his associates themselves built illusions in the TUC “lefts”, and indeed in the TUC as a whole, through the Anglo-Soviet committee. According to Stalin himself, the committee was engaged “in organising a wide working class movement against new imperialist wars in general, and against intervention into our country ...” [29], a view that could not fail to blunt criticism of the TUC by the British party.

After all, as Trotsky said, if the TUC leaders were really capable of waging a struggle against “new imperialist wars” they could not really be reformists. Granted the “native” rightist tendencies in the CPGB, the line of the International was, and was bound to be, decisive; and the line of Stalin’s faction, which now controlled the Comintern was profoundly opportunist. The wooing of Purcell and Hicks belongs to the same period as the wooing of Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Ching-wei and was part of the same policy of bureaucratic manoeuvre.

Hyman and Hinton, unintentionally, absolve the Stalinists of their responsibility for the conduct of the CPGB. They do so in the interests of a thesis. The whole strategic orientation of the CP towards mass work, they argue, was wrong:

The Party was operating in a profoundly unfavourable situation (after the defeats of 1921-22 – DH) ... In the vain pursuit of mass membership – and later, more modestly, mass influence – the Party succumbed to an opportunistic style of politics ... The strategy which the objective situation of the 1920s in fact demanded ... (was) the consolidation of a revolutionary cadre ... A cadre party placing primary emphasis on the quality of membership could alone have succeeded in sustaining the British revolutionary tradition in such unfavourable circumstances. (Such a party might, moreover, have proved far more resistant to Stalinism . . .). [30]

Now it should be clear that the situation was not, in reality, so unfavourable, but in any case the whole approach is based on a profound misconception. “Quality of membership” for what? The “high quality” members of a revolutionary organisation are those with high ability to lead their fellow workers in the class struggle. They can in no case be developed apart from the struggle for mass influence. Give up that, and you revert to the status of a propagandist sect, a superior SPGB.

It was the historic achievement of the CPGB to overcome this tradition of abstract propagandism, a tradition with a long history in the British movement.

An organisation which, in the face of the capitalist offensive of the early twenties, could only tell the working class that “the situation is profoundly unfavourable”, that the job was “to establish and sustain a substantial cadre of revolutionaries and to nurture a significant, revolutionary theoretical tradition” [31] without struggling for mass influence, would have been irrelevant. And it would have deserved to be irrelevant.

At least the CPGB was not irrelevant. At least it had advanced beyond such barren “objectivism” and sterile propagandism. Its tragedy was that it was, understandably but fatally, involved in the political decay of the Comintern, in the advent of Stalinism. Its members played a heroic role in the events of 1926. Its failure was a failure of political judgement, and for that failure the major responsibility lay with the leadership of the Communist International.




1. MacFarlane: The British Communist Party, p.143; Woodhouse and Pearce: Communism in Britain, p.180.

2. Klugmann: Marxism, Reformism and the General Strike, in Skelley (ed.): TheGeneral Strike.

3. Skelley (ed.): The General Strike, p.77.

4. Skelley (ed.): p.92.

5. Cole and Postgate: The Common People, p.550.

6. Quoted from Cole and Postgate, p.563.

7. Quoted from Skelley, p.60.

8. Quoted from Skelley, p.62.

9. Quoted from Harman: The General Strike, in International Socialism 48, p.24. This excellent account should be re-read.

10. Harman, p.24.

11. Trotsky: On Britain, p.163.

12. Taylor: English History 1914-1945, p.309.

13. Cole and Postgate, p.579.

14. Skelley, p.62.

15. Quoted from Hinton and Hyman: Trade Unions and Revolution, p.31.

16. Pearce: Early Years of the CPGB, in Woodhouse and Pearce, Communism in Britain, pp.167-168.

17. Woodhouse and Pearce, p.169.

18. Skelley, p.64.

19. Cole and Postgate, p.579.

20. Skelley, p.46.

21. Skelley, p.100.

22. Quoted from Skelley, p.43.

23. Quoted from Skelley, p.100.

24. Skelley, p.102.

25. Degras: The Communist International, Vol.II, p.304.

26. Skelley, p.103.

27. Woodhouse and Pearce, p.166.

28. Hinton and Hyman, p.72.

29. Quoted from Trotsky, p.283.

30. Hinton and Hyman, p.72-73.

31. Hinton and Hyman, p.74.


Last updated on 19.10.2006