Brian Pearce

For the Twentieth Anniversary
of Comrade Harry Pollitt
as General Secretary
of the Communist Party

(Spring 1977)

This article was published in International, Volume 3, no. 3, Spring 1977.
International was the theoretical journal of the International Marxist Group, British Section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. This issue also contained Pearce’s article Marxists and the Second World War.
Transcribed, edited and annotated for the MIA by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by David Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
This article in in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Deed.

One of the less satisfactory features of John Mahon’s recently published biography of Harry Pollitt (Lawrence and Wishart, £6.00) [1] is the very slight treatment of a major event in his subject’s career, namely, his accession to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Yet Mahon fully appreciated the importance and interest of that event.

In 1949 I wrote an article [the first text reprinted below] commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Pollitt as party leader, and circulated copies to a select list of friends and acquaintances in the party. One of these—I think it was Jack Woddis [2], now head of the International Department—saw fit to hand his copy to John Mahon, who was then in charge of the party’s London District. Mahon sent for me and told me that it was an offence against party discipline to circulate documents like this. It was not, he said, that there was anything incorrect in what I had written: on the contrary, he had been there at the time and knew that things had happened just as I described. But the story could be misunderstood and be used against the party. In fact, a copy of my little piece had gone astray and was being used by ‘enemies’ in Lambeth … [3]

As I am sure Mahon well appreciated, I had not written my article on the change of party leadership in 1929 just out of an itch to celebrate jubilees. After a period immediately after the Second World War when the CPGB had followed an extreme right-wing course, signs appeared in 1948-49 of a possible turn to the left. This was very welcome to party members of a certain type, to which I belonged—what were sometimes called ‘Sixth Congress Communists’, meaning comrades who had joined the party before the Seventh Comintern Congress [1935], in the ‘Third Period’ of ultra-leftism, and had never shaken off nostalgia for the slogans and style of work of their political youth. In those circles the criticism ‘from the left’ of the British party’s post-1945 policy which had been made by the Australian CP was well-received [4]: on this episode, see Edward Upward’s novel set in this period, The Rotten Elements (Penguin, 35p). At the same time there was marked resistance to any ‘left turn’ on the part of important sections of the party who were quite happy with the right-wing line. It was as an attack on these people that I wrote my article on the party struggle of 1929, seeing in that a kind of precedent for the conflict of 1949.

Eight years later I wrote another study of the same events, this time set in a broader context, entitled The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925–29, and this was published by John Saville [5] as one of the Reasoner pamphlets. The point of view was quite different, and a number of new facts were mentioned. The text of this pamphlet (which originally appeared with the writer’s name given as ‘Joseph Redman’) is included in Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, by Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce (New Park, £1.50). This also contains five other contributions by me to the history of the British Communist Party, all originally published in Labour Review in 1957–59. It does not include, however, the second text reprinted below, Marxists in the Second World War, written by me under the pseudonym ‘B. Farnborough’, which appeared in the Labour Review of April–May 1959.

Brian Pearce

16 October 1976


Comrade Harry Pollitt’s report to the extended Executive meeting last February included an important section on ‘Criticism and Self-Criticism’ in which he reviewed ‘opportunist mistakes’ made by our Party in recent years and stressed the importance of driving ‘Social-Democratic illusions and Social-Democratic methods from our own ranks’.

August 1949 is the twentieth anniversary of sweeping changes in the policy and leadership of the British Communist Party which rescued the Party from an opportunist course which was leading it towards political nullity as a mere left extension of Social-Democracy. These changes, which were the outcome of a prolonged and severe inner-Party struggle, included the appointment of Comrade Pollitt as General Secretary. It may be useful to recall now the events of that period, the greatest crisis in the history of the Party to date. Although the situation, both national and international, is different today in many important respects from what it was in the late 1920s (most of all, perhaps, in the vastly greater strength of the USSR), we can nevertheless draw some lessons from what happened then in the working-class movement generally and in the Communist Party in particular. The record is especially relevant to the current struggle against Social-Democracy and opportunist tendencies in the Party.

From the General Strike to the Ninth Party Congress

The General Strike of May 1926 was betrayed by the leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party at the moment when the workers’ solidarity and fighting spirit were at their highest. This betrayal represented a choice by the then leaders of the labour movement—against working-class struggle which must lead to a showdown with the capitalist state, for cooperation with the capitalist state to make capitalism work at the expense of the workers. Especially significant was the participation in the betrayal of a number of trade union leaders, such as Purcell and Hicks [6], who had masqueraded as left-wingers, largely on the basis of their speeches on overseas affairs.

The effect of the betrayal upon the workers was to disillusion great numbers of them with their old leaders and the political conceptions associated with those leaders. A marked turn of former Labour Party stalwarts towards the Communist Party took place; in the five months after the betrayal of the General Strike the membership of the Party doubled. These workers admired the Party’s fight for ‘preparedness’ in the period leading up to the strike and its staunch and bold leadership during the strike, and now looked to it to lead the struggle forward in the new situation created by the betrayal of the strike. It was a great opportunity, the greatest that had ever been presented to the Communist Party in Britain.

In those days there existed the Communist International, through which the CPSU(B) and other Communist Parties were able to pool their experience in order to advise each individual Communist Party. In June 1926 the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) held a meeting at which it reviewed the General Strike and drew up a series of recommendations to the British Party for policy in the new situation. The Party, which hitherto had functioned largely as a ‘ginger group’ bringing pressure to bear from the left on the leaders of the Labour Party and TUC and supporting the ‘Lefts’ among these leaders against the ‘Rights’, was urged to move in the direction of independent leadership of the workers. There should now be undertaken ‘ruthless denunciation’ of the so-called Lefts in the General Council of the TUC. The Party should finally break with its traditions as a propagandist sect and take organisational steps to root itself in the factories. With the least possible delay, a Communist daily paper should be launched, to counter the Social-Democratic Daily Herald.

The comrades who at that time were the leaders of the Communist Party did very little to implement these proposals, or to make any assessment of the new features of the situation following the General Strike. They continued to issue the slogan ‘More Power to the General Council’ (of the TUC, in relation to individual unions). They protested to the Soviet trade unions against the sharply critical message which the latter had sent to the General Council after the betrayal of the General Strike.

The ECCI discussed British affairs again at its meeting in November 1926. It noted the growth of class consciousness among the workers and declared that conditions for the development of ‘a mass Communist Party’, rivalling the Labour Party, were now present. At the same time, it warned the British Communists about their continued attitude of uncritical tolerance towards the ‘Lefts’ among the Labour and trade union leaders, including the miners’ leader A.J. Cook [7], who, although he had stood boldly and alone against the betrayal of the General Strike, was now showing signs of vacillation.

During the year 1927 the capitalists took steps to consolidate their victory over the workers won in the previous year with the help of Social-Democracy. Speed-up and ‘rationalisation’ were accompanied by the persecuting and victimising of militant workers. The Tory Government of Baldwin [8] brought in a Trades Dispute Bill which was aimed to make some types of strike illegal and to restrict severely the rights of trade unionists in such strikes as remained legal; the workers nicknamed it the ‘Blacklegs’ Charter’. The working class reacted vigorously against these attacks and threats of further attacks. The May Day demonstration of 1927 was the largest and most militant for many years. The ECCI, again reviewing the British situation, urged the Party leadership to rise to the occasion by setting up local Councils of Action for struggle against the Trades Disputes Bill and leading the workers in the direction of a second General Strike, this time to be led by the Communists.

The Party leadership did not do this, however, but instead entered upon a political flirtation with a new movement, led by A.J. Cook and James Maxton [9] of the ILP, which was to ‘ginger up’ the Labour Party from within. Considerable publicity and prestige were given to these adventurers by the Party speakers and press. This caused a good deal of confusion amongst the leftward-moving workers, who saw ‘Cook–Maxton’ as a sort of alternative to the Communist Party which was being recommended to them by the Party itself. (Comrade Arnot [10] wrote two years later about this episode: ‘It was perhaps more the comic opera futility of Maxton than the policy of the Party which prevented the effective growth of a third party standing between the Labour Party and the Communists.’) At the municipal elections of 1927 the Party ran candidates only where this would not involve a conflict with the Labour Party, which meant that they made a very poor showing.

The workers who had flocked into the Party began to trickle out again, disappointed at the absence of a clear fighting lead. The failure of the Party to take over the leadership of the class struggle which had been renounced and abandoned by the Social-Democrats led to the spreading of a mood of depression and cynicism amongst sections of the workers who had been eager to go forward to battle. The working-class movement as a whole fell into discredit amongst the workers; the Labour Party vote declined at by-elections and membership of the trade unions fell off. Taking advantage of the Party’s hesitancy and feebleness and the resultant confusion amongst the militant workers, the trade union bureaucracy put through measures to exclude members of the Communist Party or of the Communist-led ‘National Minority Movement’ [11] of militants in the trade unions from holding any official positions in Trades Councils.

When the Ninth Congress of the Party met in Salford in October 1927, it had before it a letter from the ECCI calling for ‘most bitter struggle’ against the Labour leaders. ‘Fresh class battles confront the British workers’, it declared, ‘and the task of the Party Congress is to prepare the Communist Party for leadership in these forthcoming conflicts.’ In spite of this appeal, the resolutions put before the Congress by the Party leadership were substantially the mixture as before; except that now, instead of just ‘a Labour Government’, the demand was for ‘a Labour Government controlled by the Executive Committee of the Labour Party’—MacDonald controlled by MacDonald. [12]

From the Ninth to the Tenth Party Congress

A number of leading Party members were extremely worried by the complacency of the majority of the Central Committee and alarmed by the latter’s ability to prevent any criticism or serious discussion of Party policy from arising, at Congress or at any other time. Outstanding amongst these comrades was Harry Pollitt, one of the Party leaders who was closest to the working class, being leader of the Party fraction in the National Minority Movement. Associated with him was RP Dutt. [13] They saw that the attack of the capitalists and the Labour leaders against the working class, which was now entering the phase of Mondism [14] was going from victory to victory (the Trades Disputes Act had been passed into law) without any serious counter-offensive by the Communist Party, which was not fulfilling its duty to the workers. They decided that the situation was so desperate as to justify the taking of special measures to break through the well-organised resistance of the majority of the Central Committee. They went to Moscow soon after the end of the Ninth Party Congress and raised the question of the situation in Britain very sharply with the ECCI. The latter communicated with the CC of the British Party and as a result the decisions of the Ninth Party Congress were brought up for reconsideration (only three months after they had been adopted) and a really free and open discussion on policy was inaugurated for the first time. The majority of the CC set forth a statement of their views on relations with the Labour Party for the membership to study and discuss alongside a counter-statement, which comrades Dutt and Pollitt were allowed to publish, setting forth the views of the minority.

The ‘majority’ statement claimed that if Lenin’s advice of 1920 (see Left-Wing Communism) was valid when it was given, then it must be more valid in 1928, since the situation in the latter year was ‘not so revolutionary as in 1920’. The workers still had faith in the Labour leaders in spite of the Labour Government of 1924 and the betrayal of the General Strike; therefore the Communist Party must again help to ‘push a Henderson-Snowden [15] Government into office’ as the only way whereby the workers might, through their own experience, learn the folly of reformism. In no circumstances must the Communists put up candidates against Labour Party men in any election where a possibility existed that to do so would let the Tory in.

Comrades Pollitt and Dutt, in their counter-statement, pointed out that Lenin’s advice of 1920 was given before there had been a Labour Government. How many Labour Governments had there to be before the Party appreciated that a new situation had come into being in which Lenin’s advice was no longer 100 per cent valid? In any event, ‘the view that we must wait for the conviction and disillusionment of the majority of the working class before the Communist Party can begin its direct fight against the Labour Party leadership leads to a dangerously passive, defeatist view of our role’. The existing policy towards the Labour Party (‘support with criticism’) was ‘a patchwork of confusion, endeavouring to combine virtually inconsistent policies. The disadvantages of two policies are combined without the advantages of either.’ The fall in the Labour vote noticed at by-elections in 1927 revealed the danger of apathy spreading in the working-class movement if a new, Communist leadership did not come to the front. Still more serious was the decline in Communist Party membership after the remarkable growth in 1926. It could not be explained, as spokesmen of the majority had tried to explain it, as due to ‘persecutions’; ‘where political interest and consciousness are strong, persecution can lead to increased strength and not to decline’. The majority were too fond of attributing setbacks due to their own mistakes to what they called ‘objective circumstances’. (For instance, they depicted ‘psychological depression’ as the inevitable and unalterable result of the betrayal of the General Strike; this was a libel on the workers and an alibi for the Party leadership.)

It is a serious fact that, at the same time as the leftward advance in the working class is visibly going forward in 1927, the Communist Party membership should be declining. We believe that an important part of the cause of this lies in the fact that the independent fighting leadership of the Communist Party, which was so strongly visible in the conditions of struggle in 1926, has not been able to be so visible in 1927 … The solution of this lies in the independent political leadership of the Communist Party directly leading the fight against the official Labour Party leadership.

As regards election tactics, the Communist Party should everywhere appeal to the Labour candidate to subscribe to a set of ‘united front demands’ based on the immediate needs of the workers; where he accepted, the Party should work for him, but where he refused, ‘we should call on the workers to give him no support and to refuse to vote, explaining fully our reasons and making clear that as soon as we are strong enough we shall bring forward a real workers’ candidate’.

Representatives of the majority and the minority in the CC appeared before the ECCI in February 1928 and argued their respective cases. The spokesmen of the majority claimed that the Communist Party must call on the workers to vote Labour ‘as against the candidate of the open capitalist parties’ because the Communist Party was not yet in a position ‘to be the national alternative to the Baldwin Government on the one hand or the Labour Government on the other’. Communist candidates should be put up only in constituencies where the Party was already strong. If the minority claimed that this meant choosing one’s constituencies on ‘empirical’ rather than on ‘political’ grounds—so that, for example, a notorious right-wing Labour leader might go unfought by a Party candidate because the Communists happened at the moment to be weak in his constituency—well, ‘if empiricism consists in facing hard facts, I plead guilty to being an empiricist … Unfortunately a political situation is built up of details.’ As the majority saw it, the minority were advocating that ‘the Communist Party is to go to the workers and say, we are so weak we cannot put up candidates; please wait until we are strong enough and we will put up candidates for you to vote for’. On the other hand, ‘if the Party puts up candidates and as a result of putting them up the Labour leaders should get 20,000 votes and the Party representative gets 1000 votes, you are not demonstrating strength and you are demonstrating weakness’. The Party must not call upon the workers to spoil their ballot papers in any constituency, because this is what the Socialist Party of Great Britain advocates, and ‘we do not want to be forced into the position of making a united front with the SPGB’. Above all, the minority, in their anxiety to sharpen the fight against Social Democracy, were forgetting the main enemy, the Tories: ‘Comrades, in all these discussions and all the statements made here, the Baldwin Government is entirely left out of the picture.’ One of the majority spokesmen put forward a proposal to transform a number of local Labour Parties which had been disaffiliated for their left-wing activity and were already linked together as the National Left-Wing Movement [16] into a new left Labour Party, to be set up against the old Labour Party led by MacDonald.

The spokesmen of the minority accused the majority of taking too narrow and short-term a view of the problem of Communist election tactics. The Party must not, of course, ‘forget the morning after the election’; but it must ‘remember still more the question of the future of the working class—not simply the morning after the election, but the next day, the next year, the next two years’. The arguments advanced by the majority against doing anything that might ‘let the capitalist candidate in’ had been hurled by the Lib-Labs against the ILP when it began the fight for independent working-class representation in the 1890s. The proposal to set up a new ‘left’ Labour Party would ‘merely create a barrier between the Communist Party and the workers’; there should be ‘no intermediary party, no mediator between the Communist Party and the working class’.

A number of contributions were made to the discussion by representatives of brother Communist Parties. One of these offered this observation: ‘It is a fact that the British comrades are inclined to base their tactics more on their opinions of what the workers think of the situation in the country rather than on the opinions of our own comrades on the actual situation.’ Another defined the question which underlay the whole controversy as: ‘To what extent can one take into consideration the Labour illusions which exist among the working masses without running the danger of strengthening these illusions by the policy of our Party.’

After this thrashing-out of the issues, the ECCI resolved that in view of the great changes since 1920, especially the experience of the Labour Government and the General Strike, and the constitutional and disciplinary changes inside the Labour Party which meant that it was ‘becoming to an increasing degree an ordinary Social-Democratic Party’, the Communist Party must change its relationship and attitude to the Labour Party. The Communist Party should come out consistently as the independent leader of the working class in its struggle against the capitalists. The Party’s aim should no longer be a Labour Government but a Revolutionary Workers Government. Communist candidates should be put up against the top leaders of the Labour Party regardless of the existing strength of the Party in their constituencies, and elsewhere, wherever the local strength of the Party warranted it, to the maximum number possible. The Party should support candidates of disaffiliated Labour Parties who put up against official Labour and also other Labour candidates who pledged themselves to support ‘the elementary demands of the working class’. ‘Voting for Labour Candidates in the remaining districts must definitely be decided upon only after all possible preliminary work is done in the matter of putting up our own and Left worker candidates.’

The resolution of the ECCI, embodying as it did substantial endorsement of the minority’s criticisms, was accepted formally but without conviction by the majority of the CC of the British Party. No real self-critical discussion of the ‘New Line’ was organised in the Party, but only a series of ‘enlightenment conferences’ at which the differences between the old line and the new were slurred over as much as possible. The Party weekly, Workers Life, even described the new line as a ‘continuation’ of the old! Confused behaviour in the by-elections which took place soon after the ECCI meeting reflected the continuance of divided counsels in the leadership. For example, at Linlithgow a Communist candidate was first put up, then withdrawn in favour of the Labour candidate, and finally advice was given to abstain from voting. The Party continued to foster the development of the National Left-Wing Movement in the direction of a reformed Labour Party, with the declared aim of ‘a Left Labour Government’ and a complete programme of the Centrist type, that is, for socialism but without the dictatorship of the proletariat. Comrade RP Dutt wrote in the Communist Review of January 1929:

The old line can still go merrily on and find a home in the National Left Wing … If it is argued that it is necessary for the Communist Party to organise this tendency as a bridge to itself, then it becomes in the end equivalent to arguing that it is the task of the Communist Party to organise Centrism … It is urged that it is necessary for the Communist Party to assist the left-wing workers and those moving to the left. This is correct, but it is not assisting them to encourage them in their illusions and appear to give to these the authority of the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, the year 1928 saw the triumph of Mondism in the leading circles of the labour movement and the beginning of large-scale unemployment due to some extent to the ‘rationalisation’ of industry which was carried through under the banner of Mondism.

At the Tenth Party Congress, held at Bermondsey in January 1929, the delegates showed themselves enthusiastic for the new line recommended by the ECCI and highly critical of the majority of the CC for having applied it hesitantly and inconsistently and without making a bonfire of remnants of the old line. They expressed discontent with the failure to take steps towards the launching of a daily paper and towards basing the Party on the factories, both of which had been urged by the ECCI so long before as June 1926. One of the Congress resolutions warned against ‘conciliation towards the old line’ which ‘tended to reduce the Party to the level of a left wing of the Labour Party’ and led towards ‘political extinction’. Comrade Tapsell [17], an active fighter for the ECCI line who was later killed in Spain, noted in an article about the Tenth Party Congress that it was free from ‘the traditional meek following of the platform’: at the same time, however, he noted that, while the platform adapted itself to the mood of the delegates, ‘if ever there was a Party leadership obstinately determined not to be self-critical it was the Party leadership at the Tenth Congress’.

From the Tenth to the Eleventh Party Congress

The early months of 1929 saw the final stages in the passing over of A.J. Cook, who ended his period of left masquerade by declaring for a Labour Government and ‘ordered progress’ and calling for an end to recriminations about ‘what happened in 1926’. When, belatedly, the Party leadership now criticised this ‘Left’ Labour leader whom it had done much to build up in the eyes of the militant workers, he savagely attacked it. So ended the disastrous cult of AJ Cook, which had led many workers to think that ‘Communism and Cookism’, as Comrade RP Arnot expressed it, ‘are just as good as one another’ and that ‘there is a ‘true socialist’ standpoint intermediate between the Labour Party and the Communist Party’.

The General Election of May 1929 found the Party leadership still facing both ways. Five members of the CC were still, almost on the very eve of the election, in favour of automatically supporting the Labour candidate in every constituency where the Party was not running its own candidate. There had been since the end of 1928 a growth in anti-Tory bitterness amongst sections of the workers previously not politically conscious, largely owing to the rise in unemployment; because of the weakness and ambiguity of the Party’s stand, this feeling expressed itself in a big vote for Labour, while the Communist candidates did poorly. During the election campaign, Labour candidates quoted Party documents of 1927–28 with telling effect.

The General Election results, which were accompanied by a sharp decline in Party membership, caused a sharpening of the political conflict within the Party. On the one hand some of the majority of the CC insinuated that it was the new line of the ECCI that was leading the Party to disaster. In this spirit, the Political Bureau was reorganised shortly after the election in such a way as to strengthen the opportunist element. Comrade Dutt, however, writing for Comrade Pollitt and the other comrades of the minority as well as for himself in the Moscow magazine The Communist International, declared that by fighting the election as an independent Party the Communist Party had shown itself to the workers as the alternative to the Labour Party, whether or not they agreed with it at the moment, and that was the main thing. It marked ‘the historical starting point of a new advance’. The small size of the vote obtained was a result of the delay and weakness in the application of the new line.

A regular ‘revolt’ of the Party membership against the opportunist majority at the Centre now developed. The London, Manchester and Newcastle District Party Committees and the National Conference of the Young Communist League declared their lack of confidence in the majority of the CC and demanded that drastic action should be taken to save the Party (whose membership had now dwindled to 2,500 as against 10,000 at the end of 1926) from literal extinction. They called for the summoning before 1929 was out of a special Party Congress to make a clean break with the old line and its devotees; otherwise they would appeal to the Communist International. The Party Centre, dominated by the opportunists, denounced all concerned in this movement as guilty of factionalism and violation of Party discipline.

At this critical juncture (August 1929) the ECCI held a meeting at which it again reviewed the British situation and gave full support to the revolt of the membership led by the minority of the CC with Comrades Pollitt and Dutt at their head. It condemned the strengthening of the opportunists in the Political Bureau and called for a change of leadership and a special Congress. Assessing the causes responsible for the drift of the British Party into its desperate condition at this time, it noted that ‘the British Party is a society of great friends’, in which deviations from Leninism are never seriously discussed for fear of giving offence to the individuals concerned; ‘good relations between persons’ being placed above ‘good relations to principles’.

Supported on the one hand by the revolt of the membership and on the other by the ECCI, the minority were now at last able to overcome the resistance of the majority and turn the tables in the CC. Three members were removed from the Political Bureau as the most obdurate opportunists, and the General Secretary himself was replaced by Comrade Harry Pollitt. The new leadership arranged a special Party Congress to be held in November. At this Congress a genuine and thorough turn would be made in the whole life and work of the Party. Commenting at this stage on the ECCI decisions, Comrade Pollitt stressed the obligations of the British Party to the world working-class movement and said that its failure to meet these obligations must be ended at once, whatever the difficulties in the way of doing this which had accumulated as a result of past errors. Even ‘defeats in concrete actions and campaigns are better than passivity, inactivity and lagging behind the masses’. Comrade Dutt (closest to Comrade Pollitt in the great fight of the minority now nearing its triumph) observed that:

… the mistakes of the past two years have already cost us too much. The easygoing attitude which is satisfied to ‘recognise’ mistakes and pass on, without deeper analysis or drawing of lessons for the future, and with the inevitable consequences of repeating these mistakes in new forms must end … It is no longer sufficient merely to ‘recognise’ a mistake after it is pointed out, and pass on. It is necessary to draw out by the roots the tendency revealed by the mistake and brand it.

If a particular kind of mistake was repeated, the Party must be ‘prepared to draw the necessary conclusions, including those with regard to changes of leadership’. Especially there must be an end to the procedure, at which the old Political Bureau had shown itself adept, of accepting the ECCI’s line in words but not carrying it out in action, ‘“interpreting” it’ instead ‘in such a way as to conceal its difference from incorrect lines’.

When the Eleventh Congress of the Party met at Leeds in November 1929, it had before it a letter from the ECCI which warned that any further delay in resolute application of the new line, any further ‘pandering to right opportunist deviations, passivity, lack of resolution and initiative and following in the wake of events’ would threaten ‘the very existence of the Party’.

The Congress confirmed the changes in leading personnel made in August, including the appointment of Comrade Harry Pollitt as General Secretary. It congratulated the membership on its struggle for the ECCI line against the old opportunist leadership. As against the charges of factionalism, it blamed the leaders of the minority for not having done more to draw the rank-and-file into their fight against the majority of the CC. Surveying the methods of resistance used by the opportunists in their effort to hold up recognition of the need for change, the Congress noted that they had tried ‘to magnify the seriousness of “Left” and sectarian errors in order to cover up Right mistakes’. The principal decisions of the Congress included:

  1. To reorganise the Party on the basis of factory cells as basic Party units.
  2. To reorganise the Party leadership so as to bring to the forefront working-class comrades having close ties with the factories and experience in strikes. (Only 12 members of the old CC were re-elected and 23 new comrades were brought in.)
  3. To launch immediately the Communist daily paper, the political need for which had been pointed out by the ECCI over three years earlier. (The Daily Worker began publication, under the editorship of the late Comrade Rust [18], on 1 January 1930, less than a month after the conclusion of the Congress.)
  4. To make self-criticism and broad political discussion thenceforth a regular feature of Party life at all levels.


The decisions of the Leeds Congress (called by Comrade Pollitt ‘the most important in the history of the Party’) restored the Party to vigorous life when it was on the point of death. They enabled the Party to keep the Red Flag flying in Britain when there was a real danger that it would go under. They came too late (after the dwindling of Party membership to a tiny figure, after the loss of footholds in the labour movement which the Party had won in 1926, after the election of the second Labour Government, and after the beginning of the great slump with the mass unemployment which it brought in its train) to save the British working-class movement from traversing an extremely difficult period in 1930-31. Thanks to the resolute leadership of Comrade Pollitt and the new CC, sustained and helped by the ECCI, the Party carried on through these dark years, keeping alive the spirit of the class struggle when the most ruthless efforts were being made to kill it, and maintaining both in propaganda and in action on immediate demands an alternative leadership to that of MacDonald and Co. When the crash of the second Labour Government and the installation of the National Government of Baldwin and MacDonald, ‘the Government of Hunger and War’, towards the end of 1931, taught the labour movement a fundamental lesson ‘the hard way’, a new period opened in which the Communist Party, preserved for the working class by the changes made in August and November-December 1929, was able to go forward to new battles at the head of considerable masses of workers. The Party emerged from the isolation and small membership into which it had fallen in 1927-29 and which had continued through 1930-31 and entered a new period of growth and extended influence which brought both new opportunities and new problems.


1. John Mahon, Harry Pollitt: A Biography, London 1976. Harry Pollitt (1890-1960) was a boilermaker and a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He replaced Albert Inkpin as the CPGB’s General Secretary in 1929, and, excluding a short hiatus during 1939–41 on account of his opposition to Moscow’s anti-war orientation during the period of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, he remained in that post until 1956, when he became the party Chairman. John Mahon (1901–1975) joined the CPGB in 1920 and was a full-time party worker from the early 1920s. First elected to the party’s Executive Committee in 1948, he was also the party’s London District Secretary. The ‘official’ party account of the changes in the CPGB’s leadership in 1929 are covered in Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927–941, London 1985.

2. Jack Woddis was Secretary of the CPGB’s International Department, was active in the Movement for Colonial Freedom, and wrote material on the question of imperialism and anti-colonial struggles.

3. A reference to Trotskyists.

4. See World News and Views, 7 August 1948.

5. John Saville (1916– ) was a member of CPGB’s Historians Group. He left the party in 1956 with E.P. Thompson, and was associated with the Reasoner magazine and pamphlet series. He continued to be an active historian of the labour movement.

6. Albert Purcell (1872–1935) and George Hicks (1879–1954) were leading officials in the furniture workers’ and building workers’ unions respectively. Both had been CPGB members for a brief while in the early 1920s and were active in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee in the mid-1920s. Both were members of the TUC General Council during the General Strike.

7. A.J. Cook (1885–1931) became General Secretary of the Miners Federation of Great Britain in 1924, and led the union during the General Strike of 1926. A strong left-winger, he was briefly a member of the CPGB during the early 1920s.

8. Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947) was Conservative Prime Minister during 1923-24, 1924-29 and 1935-37. He set up the strike-breaking Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies during the General Strike, and oversaw the introduction of strong anti-union legislation in the aftermath of its defeat.

9. James Maxton (1885–1946) was a leading member of the Independent Labour Party, and was the MP for Glasgow Bridgeton from 1922 until his death. In 1928, Maxton and Cook issued a militant manifesto aimed at rejuvenating the labour movement after the defeat of the General Strike.

10. Robin Page Arnot (1890–1986) was a founder member of the CPGB and a leading light in the Labour Research Department. He wrote extensively on trade union history.

11. The National Minority Movement was set up by the CPGB in 1924 as a means of mobilising militant workers. It enjoyed some success in the mid-1920s, but it went into decline after the General Strike, and subsequent CPGB policies resulted in its demise.

12. James Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1938) was Labour Prime Minister in 1924 and 1929-31. In 1931, he led a minority of his cabinet into a coalition National Government with the Conservatives, handing the premiership to Baldwin in 1935.

13. Rajani Palme Dutt (1896–1974) was a founding member of the CPGB and its main theoretician. He edited Labour Monthly from its inception in 1922 until his death, and was a member of the party’s Executive Committee from 1923 to 1965. He remained loyal to the Soviet Union when the CPGB leadership started to distance itself from it in the late 1960s.

14. Mondism, named after the industrialist Alfred Mond, was a system first mooted in Britain during the late 1920s whereby trade unions would attempt to maintain working-class living standards and assist industrial efficiency by cooperating with employers. Strongly supported by right-wing trade union leaders, it was condemned on the left as class collaboration.

15. Arthur Henderson (1863–1935) was a right-wing Labour Party leader. He was Home Secretary in the Labour government of 1924, and Foreign Secretary in the Labour government of 1929–31. Philip Snowden (1864–1937) was Chancellor of the Exchequer in both Labour governments, and joined MacDonald’s National Government in 1931.

16. The National Left-Wing Movement was set up by the CPGB in 1925 to mobilise left-wingers in and around the Labour Party. It achieved some success, but was closed down when the CPGB adopted the ‘class against class’ orientation.

17. Walter Tapsell was elected to the CPGB’s Executive Committee in 1929, representing the Young Communist League. He was subsequently the manager of the Daily Worker, and was a Battalion Commissar in the International Brigades when he was killed in Calaceite in April 1938.

18. William Rust (1903–1949) joined the CPGB in 1920, and became a leader of its youth section. He joined the party’s Executive Committee in 1929, and was editor of the Daily Worker during 1930–32 and from 1939 until suffering a fatal heart attack in 1949.

Last updated on 17.10.2011