Harry Pollitt 1940

The Communist Party and the Labour Party

Source: International Press Correspondence, Volume 20, no 31, 3 August 1940. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

In the 20 years’ history of the Communist Party, no question has had a more important part than that of the relations of the Communist Party with the Labour Party.

In the years from 1917 to 1920, it was the divisions in the ranks of the revolutionary workers, of what their attitude should be towards the Labour Party, that held back the developments that could have led to the formation of the Communist Party at a much earlier stage than actually took place.

Had this been possible, it would have given opportunities for playing a far more decisive role in the revolutionary period from 1917 to 1920 than actually was the case.

On looking back over these last twenty years, it is really impressive to note the sincere and systematic efforts which the Communist Party has made in endeavouring to secure an understanding with the Labour Party. Not only in regard to repeated applications for affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party, but in the suggestions and proposals for forms of united action and cooperation during every one of the important political situations and crises that have taken place in these last twenty years. What is more revealing still, in the light of what has happened in these twenty years, is to note the character of the objections that the Labour leaders have always advanced against any suggestion for cooperation of any kind with the Communist Party. What have they been? ‘That Communism meant civil war, bloodshed and violence'; that ‘Communism was the product of Asiatic minds, and was foreign to Western European socialist ideas of peaceful progress to socialism'; that ‘Communism might be all right where democracy did not exist'; that ‘Britain is different, and here the possibility of the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism is so sure, that its achievement should not be retarded by frightening the electorate through any association of the Labour Party with the Communist Party.’ And in later years, the variation of this latter objection took the form of stating: ‘If the Communist Party was affiliated to the Labour Party, then the Labour Party would be held responsible by the Tories for everything that was done in the Soviet Union.’

It has been on this type of objection that every application for affiliation, or suggestion for united activity of the Communist Party and the Labour Party has been turned down.

And at the same time as the labour leaders opposed any form of united action, they did so to the accompaniment of imposing on the rank and file of the Labour Party a whole series of rules and regulations forbidding them under any circumstances to have anything at all to do with the Communists. This has led to the exclusion from the Labour Party of some of its finest militant workers and to a denial of democratic political rights to workers in trade unions, that has had as one of its inevitable consequences the steady political degeneration of the Labour Party, alongside more and more open forms of cooperation with capitalism on the part of its principal leaders, leading to the position, where today these same leaders have transformed the Labour Party into the hostage of the Churchill government. [1]

During this same period it has been interesting and revealing to note how the Labour leaders have jumped at any ‘panacea’ that was brought forward, that aimed to prove that ‘the class struggle was old-fashioned’ or ‘there is no need for a revolutionary movement in Britain’, and that everything in the garden would be lovely for the working class, provided it only accepted without question the leadership and guidance of the Labour leaders.

Who, on looking at the position of Britain and of Europe today, can forget without the grimmest feelings of irony and bitterness how Sydney Webb, [2] as Chairman of the Labour Party Conference in 1924, on the occasion of the first Labour Government, exultingly told the delegates, how it was now only a matter of arithmetical calculation before Labour would have a complete majority in Parliament, and how a land flowing with milk and honey would be an accomplished fact.

Who can forget how, when ‘rationalisation’ became the blessed word, the eager way the Labour leaders rushed at it, and, like Citrine and Bevin, [3] grew positively lyrical at the new standards of life that opened out for the workers, if only they would cooperate with the employers in seeing that rationalisation went through without any resistance.

Who can forget how, in 1928, when the phrase ‘organised capitalism’ began to gain political currency, how slavishly the British labour leaders followed the example of the German Social Democratic leaders and came out full swing with their pernicious and lying propaganda that the day of unemployment, crises and wars was over. Indeed, one British labour leader, after a lightning tour of America, came out full-tilt to the effect that ‘Ford had now replaced Marx’. (In passing, let us not forget the role the ILP played at that time, for under the leadership of Brailsford [4] they swallowed the whole of the ‘organised capitalism’ propaganda, hook, line and sinker. Did they not coin the phrase ‘through capitalist prosperity to socialism'?)

Is it a cause for wonder, bearing in mind these facts, that Herbert Morrison, MP, [5] in his capacity as Labour Minister of Transport in 1929, went out of his way to show that the Labour Government intended to treat the capitalists as men and brothers, and to ensure the continuance of their profits?

But a price has had to be paid by the workers for all these attempts to deny the historic basis of all Socialist agitation, education and organisation, for they have had the most terrible results for the working masses during these last twenty years, and they are going to have even more terrible results, unless an end is put to the present policy of the Labour Party and its present leaders.

It was on the basis of such capitalist ideas in the Labour Party that the first gigantic mass movement of the workers after the last war, the Triple Alliance and the Miners’ Lock-Out in 1921 [6] was betrayed, and the long years of the capitalist offensive against working-class conditions that followed from it.

It was these capitalist ideas which rendered the rule of two Labour Governments the most shameful in the history of the labour movement. It was this which led to the betrayal of the General Strike and the Miners’ Lock-Out in 1926.

It was this which explains the treachery of MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas [7] in the economic crisis of 1931; but even that black act was not as black as that now being performed by those labour leaders who are in the Churchill government.

It was these capitalist ideas and policy which led to the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress sponsoring for the first thirteen decisive months the criminal policy of non-intervention in Spain and all that has followed from the betrayal of the Spanish Republic.

Of course, during these last twenty years, there has always been a ‘left wing’ inside the Labour Party, headed by prominent personalities who thought in terms of persons and never in terms of masses. This ‘left wing’ has a very heavy responsibility for the developments that have taken place inside the Labour Party, for they too have helped to disorganise and confuse the struggle of the membership of the Labour Party against the reformist policies of the dominant right-wing leadership.

This ‘left’ has always stated that because ‘they, too, had no connections with the Communists and had no connections with Moscow’ they were in a better position to organise the mass revolt of the rank and file of the Labour Party against the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party than the Communist Party would ever be able to achieve. Where is that mass opposition today? The question has only to be asked to be answered, and some of the ‘left’ are now being compelled by the events to give the answer as to the true position inside the Labour Party.

If the role of the right-wing leaders has been a shameful one, that of the ‘left’ has been both shameful and pitiful, reaching its highest expression in the present combination around the Tribune, [8] some of whom, week by week, begin to reveal a growing recognition that once again they have climbed on to the wrong band-wagon, and, as usual, backed the wrong horse.

But what has been the result for the Labour Party rank and file, for those who pay their pennies, do the donkey-work inside the local labour organisations, those who have remained loyal to what they still think are the socialist principles of the Labour Party, those who have no thought of careers or winning high positions, but only ask to serve and help build up the fighting movement of the working class?

It is plain for all to see, to all who really wish to see and do not want to blind themselves any longer to a false conception of loyalty to Labour. Even Aneurin Bevan, MP, [9] has been compelled to state that never was the political stagnation inside the Labour Party so pronounced as at the present time.

This is true. The Labour Party has never before registered such a low level of political activity as now, and this, in the present terrible emergency of the common people. There was never a time, when there was so much to do, to explain, and give the working class lead and policy upon as there is now. Never was there such a need for socialist agitation, education and organisation and carrying forward of the whole working-class struggle against capitalism and for power as now. Yet it is precisely at this time that the Labour Party has degenerated to its present position.

For twenty years the Communist Party has placed before the Labour Party proposals that, had they been accepted, could have prevented every development that finds its logical result in the present imperialist war. Our documents are on record. It is not possible to challenge them.

Whether in the fight against unemployment, attacks on wages, solidarity in strikes and lock-outs, in general elections, in fights to support workers in all lands fighting for their genuine independence, such as in Austria, Spain, China, Czechoslovakia, our record is there for every rank-and-file member of the Labour Party to consider and now ponder upon in the light of what lies ahead.

In every proposal it has placed before the Labour Party during these last twenty years, the Communist Party has had only one aim, namely, to unite and strengthen the working-class fight against capitalism, reaction and war and help forward the mass movement towards the achievement of working-class power and socialism. Its proposals have been consistently refused by a leadership that has no interest in fighting capitalism or achieving socialism. For the essence of reformism is that it only aims to weaken and disorganise the struggle of the workers and strengthen the forces of the enemies of the workers.

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Communist Party, we make an appeal to the rank and file of the Labour Party to take their place alongside us Communists in every phase of the present struggle against the imperialist war and the government that directs it, to working in field, factory and workshop alongside us Communists, so that in defending the present interests of the workers we shall at the same time take care of their future interests as well, and in this way be able to develop that mighty mass movement that today can win a new People’s Government and a People’s Peace, and tomorrow go forward to the next stage of the class struggle for the establishment of socialism.


All notes have been provided by the MIA.

1. The Labour Party held several prominent Cabinet posts within Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government.

2. Sidney James Webb, First Baron Passfield (1859-1947) and his wife Martha Beatrice Webb, Lady Passfield (née Potter; 1858-1943) were Fabian socialists and prolific writers on social reform and welfare. Hostile to Bolshevism, they became greatly enamoured with the Soviet Union in the 1930s. A Labour MP during 1922-29, Sidney Webb was both Secretary of State for the Colonies and Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs in the Labour Government elected in 1929.

3. Walter Citrine (1887-1983), by trade an electrician, was General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress during 1925-46. Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) was the right-wing leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, Labour MP during 1940-51, Minister of Labour and National Service in Churchill’s wartime cabinet, and subsequently Foreign Secretary in Attlee’s Labour Government during 1945-51.

4. Henry Brailsford (1873-1958) was a left-wing journalist and prolific author. Sympathetic to the October Revolution, he became increasingly critical of the Soviet government from the mid-1920s, and condemned the show trials that it organised in the 1930s. Brailsford left the Independent Labour Party in 1932.

5. Herbert Stanley Morrison (1888-1965) was a Labour MP during 1923-24, 1929-31 and 1935-59. He stood on the right wing of the party, was hostile to any form of cooperation with the Communist Party, and when Home Secretary in Churchill’s wartime National Government announced the ban on the party’s Daily Worker in January 1941.

6. The Triple Alliance was an informal agreement amongst the unions representing Britain’s miners, transport workers and railway workers that aimed at organising united action to defend employment conditions. However, when the miners were confronted with wage reductions in early 1921, the leaders of the transport and railway workers’ unions refused to call for strike action in support of the miners.

7. James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) was Labour Prime Minister during 1924 and 1929-31, when he became Prime Minister of the first National Government, resulting in his being expelled from the Labour Party. Philip Snowden (1864-1937) was Chancellor of the Exchequer in MacDonald’s Labour and National Governments, and was duly expelled from the Labour Party. James Henry ‘Jimmy’ Thomas (1874-1949) was secretary of State for the Colonies in MacDonald’s first government, then Lord Privy Seal and later Secretary of State for the Dominions and Colonial Secretary in his second Labour and National Governments, and was duly expelled from the Labour Party.

8. Tribune was set up in early 1937 by two left-wing Labour MPs, Stafford Cripps and George Strauss, to mobilise support for the Unity Campaign, an attempt to build a broad left-wing front bringing in the Labour Party, the ILP and the CPGB. Its political line was at first close to that of the CPGB, although it refused to follow the latter in its anti-war turn in October 1939, and the CPGB’s stance towards it at this juncture was very hostile.

9. Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897-1960) was Labour MP for Ebbw Vale during 1929-60, and Minister for Health during 1945-51 and played a key role in establishing the National Health Service.