Peter Sedgwick

Inspiring – the early struggle
for the revolution in Britain

(15 May 1969)

From Socialist Worker, No. 122, 15 May 1969, pp. 2–3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE PUBLICATION of Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900–21 is an outstanding event.

Summarising the origins and growth of marxist movements in this country up to the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Kendall has re-created the extraordinary range and richness of militant socialism in the early years of this century.

It is unfortunately true that many on the Left who will reel off the various splits among the Russian Bolsheviks down to the minutest detail are quite ignorant of the lives and battles of the British Left.

Kendall leaves us with no excuse for our ignorance. Here is the suppressed story of the Scottish revolutionary hero John MacLean, whose political disagreements with Lenin and the British Communist Party led to quite unfounded stories about his ‘hallucinations’ being spread by CP officialdom.

Authentic organisation

Here are the battles in the heyday of British imperialism between the opponents of colonial war and the jingoes like Hyndman who waved the Union Jack to the accompaniment of marxist phraseology.

Here is the long, painful story, marked by bitter quarrels and personal rivalries, of the attempt to build an authentic revolutionary organisation of the working class in its struggle for socialism – a story which is still uncompleted though perhaps with some hope of the beginnings of completion in our own day.

Workers are accustomed nowadays to the idea that there are only two or three varieties of socialist thought and socialist organisation – the CP and the Left Labourites, with maybe some kind of Trotskyism as another possibility.

Waiter Kendall’s book makes it clear that the early history of socialism in this country is marked by creative debate and disagreement on a whole number of contentious points that have been simply obliterated through the prestige of the Russian Revolution.

In 1920 and 1921 large sections of the militant marxist Left opposed participation in Parliamentary elections as a sham and a fraud and would have no truck with the Labour Party. Their objections were over-ruled by the overawing influence of Lenin and the Communist International and they fell into line.

Now, nearly 50 years and a dozen general elections later, it is surely by no means clear that their position was wrong. On this, and on a large number of other matters, Walter Kendall has done a great service by ventilating some old traditions that deserved a fresh airing.

The importance of this book goes well beyond any academic or antiquarian interest. Kendall records the years of war-time discontent when the authorities of the country lived in fear of working-class revolution.

In 1917, eight regional Commissions of Enquiry into Industrial Discontent delivered reports to the government inside five weeks (shame on you, Lord Donovan). The general picture was one of alarm and revolutionary contagion.

Mutinies and revolt

In Yorkshire and the East Midlands, it was reported, ‘a minority of very advanced and visionary workers’ had influenced ‘practically the whole body of skilled men’ affecting, ‘hundreds of thousands of workers.’

The police, the army and the navy all mutinied in these years, and the Clyde was in constant revolt. During the Clyde strike of January 1918, trainloads of troops arrived in Glasgow.

‘It is undesirable,’ states a secret directive to these forces dug out by Kendall, ‘that firing should take place over the heads of rioters or that blank cartridges should be used.’ Who said our ruling class was peaceful?

If the revolutionary movement did not grow larger and provide a more effective threat to British capitalism, part of the blame must lie with the different movements of the militant Left in the preceding years, which had been split into societies with an abstract ‘educational’ orientation divorced from industrial struggle and bodies with a better industrial perspective but an ‘anti-organisation’ complex.

The lessons we can draw for today are not too hard to seek. Yet one must stress: only part of the blame can be ascribed to the young revolutionary movements.

Many, many mistakes were doubtless made by them and by the workers of their time. Error is inseparable from action: but a mass upsurge of revolutionary fervour can triumph over tactical and political errors, at least up to a point.

In reviewing the record of battles long ago, Walter Kendall (in my own view) tends to take too much advantage of his later vantage-point in history and to say ‘This, this and this shouldn’t have been done’.

No serious threat

Well, maybe it shouldn’t: but the failure of a more genuine and long-lasting revolutionary movement to arise in Britain cannot be laid to the account of such tactical niceties. As Kendall emphasises, the basis for such a movement simply wasn’t there: the dispersed explosions among different sections of British workers in World War One do not (and did not) add up to a serious threat to the capitalist social order.

So the imperfections of revolutionary tacticians cannot be said to have missed any crucial opportunities

Walter Kendall draws the conclusion that the Communist Party should not have been founded. On the evidence he cites in convincing abundance, certainly the present one shouldn’t have been: it was completely under Moscow’s spell from the start.

But can one draw the conclusion that no communist or marxist party of any description should have been established in this period? Do we have to choose, as the only alternative, Wilson’s Labour Party (which the author still describes as ‘unchallengeably and indisputably the mass party of the working class’!)

Surely that is not the choice. A new party of workers must be built, with a revolutionary socialist programme and active links in industry: and when it comes it will rediscover the thoughts and the actions of the pre-Comintern pioneers that Walter Kendall has so splendidly described.

This book costs five guineas (publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicolson). I am reviewing a borrowed copy. Mass orders please to your local public library.

Last updated on 15 January 2021