J. T. Murphy

Confusion on the ‘Left’

Source: The Nineteenth Century and After: A Monthly Review, November 1939
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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.

No event in modern history has so profoundly shocked, distressed and confused the British Labour Movement as that of the signing of the Soviet-Nazi Pact. Although there had been hints of the possibility of some such arrangement, no one had really expected it. All were taken by surprise, including the Communist Party. The resulting confusion is without comparison in any crisis since the British Labour Movement came into being.

The leaders of the Labour Party and the Trade Union Movement, who had ardently advocated a pact of mutual assistance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union, roundly denounced the new pact as the betrayal of democracy. They declared that Soviet Russia had ‘double-crossed’ Britain. The overwhelming majority of the Trades Union Congress, in session at Bridlington on September 4th, agreed with Sir Walter Citrine when he declared that the action of Russia had precipitated the war.

The ‘Left’ Socialists who had been the most enthusiastic supporters of the Soviet Union were bewildered and uneasily questioned each other as to the meaning of Russia’s new orientation. Only the Communist Daily Worker was sure that it was the greatest action for peace the world had ever seen, and that it made not the slightest difference to the fate of the projected Anglo-French-Soviet Pact of mutual assistance. It mattered not that the Soviet-Nazi Pact definitely precluded an alliance of the Soviet Union and Britain and France. We could have both pacts. But the distress and confusion in the ranks of the membership of the Communist Party was as profound as in the ranks of the Socialist ‘Left.’

Nor did events help to clear it away. The Daily Worker still demanded that the Poles should stand up to Germany, and assured the people of this country that the British Government was preparing another ‘Munich.’ When no up-to-date ‘Munich’ arrived and Hitler’s troops marched into Poland, the British Government did the opposite of what the Communists had anticipated. It declared war on Germany. Unperturbed by the falsification of their prediction, the Communist Party issued a manifesto supporting the war, and declared itself prepared to ‘support all measures to secure the victory of democracy over Fascism.’ It was necessary to support the ‘Polish people’s fight for independence.’

After the Nazi Army had overrun two-thirds of Poland and the Red Army was in control of the remainder, Polish independence ceased to have any appeal. The war, it now declared, had become an ‘imperialist war.’ The freedom even of that part of Poland under Nazi domination was no longer an issue. The war was no longer a means to prevent the ‘forcible destruction of every democratic right and liberty,’ but was nothing other than a naked power struggle between rival imperialists. The double somersault was complete. Mr. Pollitt found himself deposed from the position of leader of the Communist Party and the party found itself operating an unsigned ‘non-aggression pact’ with the Peace Pledge Union and Sir Oswald Mosley in a ‘stop the war’ campaign.

Were it only a question of how events had created dissension and confusion, in the ranks of the Communist Party of this country it would be, at present, a matter only of academic interest to the student of politics. But the repercussions from the change in Soviet policy are far more far-reaching. They stretch beyond the ranks of this party to the whole Labour and liberal movements of this country and all other countries where such movements exist. It will therefore be worth while to analyse the development of the Communist-Labour-Liberal policy of recent years and to discover the reason for the current Soviet-Nazi relationship.

Whatever else may be said about the British Labour Movement in relation to its attitude to Soviet Russia, it has, with the exception of a few of its leaders, been a warm-hearted supporter. Although it has always proclaimed that it thought Socialism could come in this country by other means than through civil war, it has had a profound sympathy with the Russian Revolution, appreciation of its constructive work and an increasing admiration for its foreign policy. And it could be added, that the further away from the leadership the stronger have been these tendencies.

The official policy of the Labour Party in relation to Russia may he summed up as that of Liberal is relation to Russia as a State, sympathetic towards the development of Russian socialist economy and social services, and disapproval of its political structure and theories of social development. Hence it was not a difficult matter, when, in 1934, Soviet Russia joined the League of Nations, for the Labour Party to hail the event as a profound confirmation of its own policy. It also made it easy for it to welcome the idea of a British, French, Soviet Pact. It appeared to the Labour Party that these developments were part of a liberalising process going on in the outlook of the Soviet leaders.

It was this latter assumption which laid it wide open to the blow it received when suddenly, with little warning, all its calculations as to the course of events were falsified. Although it was annoyed with the long-drawn-out negotiations between the British and Russian Governments, it really believed that sooner or later such a pact would be signed. The shock it received when it discovered that parallel negotiations must have been going on between the Russians and the Nazis in secret, added to the bitterness it experienced when the Russian-German Pact was signed. Both the Daily Herald and the leaders of the Labour Party expressed themselves with extreme ferocity and calmed down only when Government spokesmen pointed out that the Pact was not proving so advantageous to Nazi Germany as some people assumed.

This bitterness in the ranks of the leadership of the labour Party, however, did not correspond to the feelings of the general membership. In the minds of the rank and file there was simply bewilderment. They did not, and do not yet, understand how it was possible for Bolsheviks and Nazis to come to terms. Of course, there was good reason for that. For years they had heard from every section of the Socialist and Labour Movement, including the Communists, that the Fascist Powers were the enemies of peace and civilisation. They had been told that ‘peace was indivisible’ and the Soviet Union was the natural ally of the democracies and peace-loving countries against the aggressor Powers—the warmakers.

Perhaps it is that the average man and woman has no pet theories to discard, but to at least my own astonishment, I found in the course of scores of conversations with Labour Party members and trade unionists, none of the bitterness expressed by the leaders. On the contrary, I found that the less politically sophisticated the spokesman, the more often I heard the comment: ‘Well, it serves the British Government right. They should have made the Pact with Russia when they had the chance.’ But they were alarmed as to the outcome and were convinced that whatever the Russians might do we had got to fight Hitler.

All the bitterness and bewilderment of the leaders seems to have arisen from the shattering of the illusion that Russia’s entrance into the League of Nations meant that the Soviet leaders were becoming more Liberal and approximating more closely to the views of the leaders of the Labour Party.

The dilemma of the ‘Left’ Socialists and the Communists has a similar origin, in that what we may call ‘the League of Nations period’ of Soviet policy was regarded not as a tactical phase of a larger strategy, but as the basic policy of the Soviet Union. A perusal of the books, magazines and files of Communist and Socialist publications will prove this conclusively.

It is a striking fact that not one Communist leader or writer anticipated the present turn of events. Almost every other contingency was considered possible but that of Soviet assistance to Nazi Germany, waging war against the democracies—Britain and France. Ever since the rise of Hitler to power in 1933 the editor of the Labour Monthly, for example, has, month by month, expounded the thesis that the capitalist Governments of the world were converging amidst all the contradictions of their policies and their rivalries, for a common onslaught upon the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was replying to these manœuvres by the Peace policy of making non-aggression pacts. At one stage the British Government is the dominant conspirator. Later it becomes the aider and abettor of Hitler.

In June 1934, the Editor wrote:

. . . . a still wider tendency of world grouping or alignment is brought sharply into view. On the one side, Britain, Italy, Germany and Japan, working with a considerable measure of combination a whole series of questions, despite particular differences. On the other side, less dearly defined and with varying degrees of inter-relationship, France and the League, the Soviet Union and the United States.

In April 1935, the same writer did see the possibility of Britain and Germany coming to blows. He wrote that there were ‘increasing alarms lest the guns go off at the wrong time and in the wrong direction, with the consequent menace that the British imperialists may finally find themselves facing the wrong end of the gun they have helped to load.’ By April 1938 he had reached the view that

British Imperialism is revealed as the decisive, active, tireless driving force of preparation for a new world war, of co-operation with Fascism and of the anti-Soviet crusade, that the plans for partition extended, not only to the Ukraine for Germany and Poland and the Far Eastern Province for Japan, but to Central Asia and the Northern timber regions for Britain, that the British secret service has been in full activity on the same lines as the Nazi network in relation to the Soviet Union.

All this did not preclude the classification of Britain as one of the peace loving Powers and Nazi Germany as an aggressor Power, alongside a constant agitation for a British Pact with the Soviet Union.

However one may agree or disagree with the views outlined, the striking fact is that the possibility and probability of the Soviet Union making a pact with Nazi Germany was never discussed by the editor of the Labour Monthly. Whatever wisdom or unwisdom there may be in it, he saw it after and not before the event.

Mr. John Strachey wrote a book called the Theory and Practice of Socialsm, which was the book of the month for the Left Book Club and had an enormous circulation. Mr. Strachey expounded Soviet policy as follows:

The Soviet Union is able to align herself, not with the necessarily aggressive states, which, like Germany were deprived of large possessions by the last world settlement, but with the relatively satisfied states. For, despite her losses of territory, the Soviet Union, too, is a satisfied state—for her innate constitution is such that she needs no expansion. The hungry and aggressive states cast their eyes both at her and at the possessions of their more fortunate capitalist neighbours. An inevitable community of interest grows up between the relatively satisfied capitalist states, who wish to keep the peace because they wish to keep the spoils, and the Soviet Union, which wishes to keep the peace because she has no need of the spoils. Hence there arise such instruments as the present Franco-Soviet Pact of mutual assistance [pp-255-256].

The possibility of the Soviet Union making a pact with the ‘necessarily aggressive capitalist state’ is not considered; in fact, not thought of.

Another leader of the Communist Party, Mr. J. R. Campbell, wrote a book called Soviet Policy and its Critics. This also had a wide circulation through the Left Book Club. In it, on p. 292, he is very emphatic as to the immediate possibilities in Europe. He writes:

There are two immediate possibilities and two only in Europe to-day. The first is that the countries opposed to Fascist aggression remain split and that Fascism attacks them one by one, seizing parts of their territory, destroying the democratic rights of their peoples and in some cases ending their existence as independent countries. . . . The second is that the Soviet Union and the capitalist countries which are opposed to Fascist expansion, build up a peace combination, strong enough to hold the Fascists in check and to give the people in the Fascist countries the opportunity of gathering their forces for attack on their oppressors.

Again there was no anticipation of the Soviet leaders coming to terms with the ‘aggressor’ and henceforth re-classifying the erstwhile ‘peace-loving democratic powers’ as the aggressors.

The reason for this and the consequent somersaulting in the Communist Party’s policy finds its explanation in the fact that its leaders had fallen into the same error as the rest of the Labour Movement, and assumed that the principles of the Covenant of the League had become the first principles of Soviet foreign policy, instead of tactical weapons of a larger independent strategy. The secrecy attached to the removal of Litvinov from his post as Soviet Foreign Minister led to their overlooking its significance. The explanation of his removal was not broadcast, and it was only some months afterwards that it became clear that he had been accused of giving too much emphasis to the fight against Fascism. No one can read his speeches delivered at Geneva without being struck by the fact that he regarded the Fascist States as the enemies of civilisation and that he was advancing the Soviet Union to the forefront of the struggle against the Fascist Powers. It appeared to Stalin and his colleagues that there was an increasing danger of the Soviet Union becoming the storm centre of the conflict and ‘pulling chestnuts out of the fire for other people.’

Had the full significance of the dismissal of Litvinov been appreciated and understood, the scramble of the Communists of Britain to take up new positions would not have been so precipitate and the Labour Movement would not have been caught so unprepared by the events of August and September. The fact is that the Soviet Government is interested in the fight against Fascism only in so far as it affects the existence and development of the Soviet Union. It regards the fight against Fascism as a social policy and system, to be the task of the Communist, Labour, Trade Union and Liberal Movements within the countries threatened or overrun by Fascism. It has thus as little compunction about coming to an agreement, and even an alliance, with a Fascist country as with a democratic capitalist country.

There is a remarkable letter from Lenin to an American worker, quoted at length by Mr. J. R. Campbell in his book Soviet Policy and its Critics, which makes this clear. In this letter he explains how he negotiated with a French officer, de Lubersac, a monarchist, for the purposes of arriving at an agreement to secure French services for the blowing up of a German railway track. He finishes this letter by saying: ‘I would not hesitate a single second to come to the same kind of agreement with the German Imperialist robbers should an attack upon Russia by Anglo-French troops demand it.’

Here is no designation of ‘Fascist aggression’ as the enemy, or of ‘have-nots’ and ‘haves,’ ‘satiated and unsatiated’ Powers. Any and every capitalist power is useful or otherwise, according to circumstance and the interests of Soviet Russia, pending social revolution within other countries. Such considerations undoubtedly lay behind Russia’s entrance into the League of Nations, its non- aggression pacts, the sacking of Litvinov and the signing of the Soviet-Nazi Pact.

But the British Communists and Socialists had not thought of the ‘Litvinov period’ as governed by such considerations. For them the Soviet Foreign Minister’s statements were full statements of basic principles which determined their estimate of the situation and their policy.

As a corollary, the Communists made a revaluation of capitalist democracy. Virtues were discovered in it which hitherto had been overlooked. Democracy became something which should be defended against all .comers. This provided the basis for the creation of a popular front with Labour, Liberal, Socialist and Liberal-Tories to stem the tide of Fascism aggression at home and abroad. Mr. J. R. Campbell explains the policy in his book. He says:

The People’s Front tactic has a twofold aim: (1) It seeks to build an alliance of the working class and the intermediate sections of the population to defend democracy and preserve peace, and to achieve a Labour and Democratic government as a means to this end; and it seeks (2) to enable the revolutionary workers to win the working class and considerable sections of the middle classes for the complete socialist programme (p. 373).

Capitalist democracy thus had virtues not possessed by Nazi totalitarianism, virtues indeed which were worth fighting for, and sufficient to put them on the side of Chamberlain against Hitler on the outbreak of war.

Having somersaulted from the international policy of overwhelming Hitler by a combination of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots,’ to the policy of coining to terms with Hitler, there has been a corresponding revaluation of democracy in this country. It ceases to be a democratic country with such marked differences from Hitlerism, that there is no longer any need for them to tell us ‘how to win the war.’1 It has become once more simply an imperialist Power fighting an imperialist war against an imperialist rival. So the campaign for the popular front for the preservation of democracy has become a ‘stop the war’ campaign. What then is the implication of this? Surely it is that Mr. Chamberlain, who cannot be trusted to wage war for the right reason, can be trusted to enter immediately into negotiations to make peace.

Although events have thus thrust the Communists and ‘Left’ Socialists into a political whirlpool from which they have not yet emerged, it does not follow that the rest of the Labour Movement is unaffected. Officially it stands behind the Government, and is saying exactly the same things about the war. It has produced no independent aims and is only mildly critical of the Government. Its co-operation takes the form of bringing up the rear for the Government, and not that of an independent movement which has entered into an alliance with an opponent for specific limited ends. The leaders of the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress are acting as the staff officers of the Chamberlain Government and not as the leaders of a prospective alternative Government.

Having denounced the Soviet Nazi Pact, they do not know what to say about the subsequent developments of Russian policy and have simply echoed Government spokesmen. This is adding to the general confusion within the Labour Movement. Although it can be confidently asserted that the great mass of the members and supporters of the Labour Party and Trade Union Movement are prepared to wage the war for the defeat of Hitler and Hitlerism, there is a growing doubt about the way in which the war is being waged.

Up to the present time the Government itself has simply stated that we are fighting to crush Hitlerism in order that we can have a quiet life. The people are anxious to have something more positive. They want to know what is to replace Hitlerism and how the quiet life is to be secured. Not one leader has stood before the people to give them a vision of how these things may be. To restore the status quo of two millions unemployed, dislocated markets, depreciated currency, heavy taxation and general uncertainty is not a vision which will inspire a nation to sacrifice. Up to now this is the limit of the perspective which has been held out before us. The issue cannot be glossed over by perorations about a ‘new world.’

The rank and file of the Labour Movement feel that their leaders should, before now, have produced an alternative, and are unhappy because it has not been forthcoming. They feel that if ever there was a time in the history of this country when their movement should prove to the nation that it is the real custodian of the fight against Hitlerism, and that it has the alternative programme of action to ensure a better future for the people, it is now.

The longer it delays action of this kind the more sure it is, especially in this period when its independent activities are so greatly curtailed, that the morale of the movement will degenerate. Instead of the new social vision carrying the people of this country towards a Socialist society as a result of the fight to end Hitlerism, the very mechanism which the waging of the war inevitably brings into being is likely to fetter this country with its own kind of Hitlerism.

That is a grim perspective to contemplate, but it is most certainly inherent within the present confusion unless there quickly emerge from within its ranks the leaders with the vision which blazes through the mists of to-day and inspires the people with the conviction that its sacrifices are not to be in vain.




1.  Title of a pamphlet by Mr. H. Pollitt.