Max Shachtman


Genesis of Trotskyism


The British General Strike of 1926

After the German October retreat, the Opposition advanced the idea that the immediately revolutionary situation was at an end. The official viewpoint, propounded at the Fifth Comintern Congress in 1924, was that the revolutionary wave was first beginning to break. Four months after the decisive German defeat, Zinoviev announced that “Germany is apparently approaching a sharpened civil war.” Stalin added: “It is false that the decisive struggles have already been fought, that the proletariat has suffered a defeat in these struggles and the bourgeoisie has grown stronger as a result.”

Entirely blind to the fact that a period of capitalist stabilization had set in as a result of their own blunders and shortcomings, the party bureaucracy oriented the Comintern on the basis of an imminent revolutionary upheaval and civil war. But when it became clear even to the blind that the perspective of the Fifth Congress was utterly false, the bureaucracy, intent upon maintaining its own prestige, bolstered up its now discredited predictions by inventing revolutionary phenomena. In a word, the ultraradical phrasemongering of the Fifth Congress led the officialdom directly to opportunism, to painting in revolutionary colors those movements and men who had little or nothing in common with the revolution.

As the revolution did not appear where it was predicted (in Germany and Bulgaria), strenuous efforts were made to discover the revolution where it did not exist. It was in this period, therefore, that scarcely a shrewd petty bourgeois or labor politician on three continents was not hailed as an “acquisition” to the revolutionary movement.

Bourgeois agrarian leaders like Green of Nebraska, Raditch of Yugoslavia, the Catholic adventurer Miglioli of Italy were hailed as the “leaders of the revolutionary peasants” in the hotch-potch of the “Red Peasants’ International.” The World League Against Imperialism was formed by the Comintern as a refuge for those discredited labor politicians, pacifists and bourgeois nationalists standing in need of protection from the rising militancy of the masses who were losing their illusions. American White House lobbyists, Arabian princes, Egyptian nationalists, British labor misleaders, French Freemasons and bourgeois journalists, German and Austrian and Czech doctors and lawyers, guerrilla chiefs and unemployed politicians from Mexico, Catalonian irredentists, Gandhists from India – all of them found a haven in the anteroom of the Comintern. The Kuomintang of the Chinese bourgeoisie was admitted against Trotsky’s vote, as a fraternal party into the councils of the Communist International!

Of all the discoveries made in this quest after will-o’ the-wisps that were to prop up the fantastic edifice of the Fifth Congress, the Anglo-Russian Committee proved to be one of the most pernicious. The Committee was made up of the Councils of the trade unions of England and Russia, formed as a result of a British trade-union delegation’s visit to the Soviet Union at the end of 1924.

The original aim of the Committee was to further the establishment of international trade-union unity.

“The creation of the Anglo-Russian Committee,” wrote the Opposition in 1927, “was, at a certain moment, a thoroughly correct step. Under the influence of the Leftward development of the working masses, the liberal labor politicians, Just like the bourgeois liberals at the commencement of a revolutionary movement, took a step towards the Left in order to retain their influence in the masses. To hold them there was entirely correct.”

But the scope and attributes of the Committee were speedily extended far beyond its original objective. From a temporary bloc between a revolutionary and a reformist organization for a clearly defined and limited goal, the Committee was endowed by Stalin and Bucharin with capacities and objectives which it could not possibly have. It became, according to Stalin in 1926, “the organization of a broad movement of the working class against new imperialist wars in general and against an intervention in our country, especially on the part of England, the mightiest of the imperialist states of Europe.” The Moscow committee of the party announced that “it will become the organizatory center that embraces the international forces of the proletariat for the struggle against every endeavor of the international bourgeoisie to begin a new war.”

In vain did the Left Opposition argue against the falsity of this conception which set up the British labor leaders of the Purcell, Cook, Hicks, Swales and Citrine stripe as the revolutionary organizers of the world’s working class against imperialist war and for defense of the Soviet republic. As had become the custom, its arguments were not dealt with. It was simply accused of opposing the united front policy and of being in the pay of Sir Austen Chamberlain!

The Stalinist conception of the role and nature of the Anglo-Russian Committee flowed directly from the theory of socialism in one country. According to the latter, Russia could build up its own nationally isolated socialist economy,

“if only foreign military intervention could be staved off. This is the idea which impelled the Stalinists to search frantically for ‘anti-interventionists’ and to convert the Communist parties into Soviet border patrols. Purcell, who needed the alliance with the Soviets as a shield from the attacks of the revolutionary militants in England, was hailed as one of the organizers of the struggle against the military intervention, which alone could prevent Russia from building a socialist society. The trade-union bloc quickly became a political bloc between the reformists of England and the Russian party bureaucracy, not for a moment but for a long time. Hymns of praise were sung to these British labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie in all the languages of the Comintern. The Committee was designated as the staunch bulwark of the world proletariat against war and intervention. Only the Opposition declared that the “more acute the international situation becomes the more the Anglo-Russian Committee will be transformed into a weapon of English and international imperialism.”

Later events fully confirmed this unheeded warning.

The first really serious test of the Anglo-Russian Committee was the British general strike of 1926, which broke out in the midst of the great miners’ strike. Just as metals are best tested in fire, so all the assurances of friendship for Russia, of loyalty to British labor and enmity to British imperialism, freely given by Purcell and Co., were subjected to a decisive test in the flames of the genera] strike. And just as the Opposition had warned, the British General Council, its Left wing as well as its Right, displayed a disgraceful cowardice and treachery, an unshaken loyalty to the ruling class, a hatred and fear of the revolutionary proletariat.

After nine days of the general strike, when a revolutionary situation was engendered in which the power of the ruling class rested not so much in itself as it did in the strength which the labor leaders enjoyed in the working class, the General Council deliberately delivered the death blow to the struggle. In face of the extremely militant mood of the workers, the pitiful helplessness of the bourgeoisie, of such occurrences as the refusal of numerous armed regiments to proceed against the strikers – all the trade-union lackeys of the bourgeoisie rushed to the government buildings to confer with the king’s ministers on how to crush the movement.

The “red” veneer with which the Left labor leaders had coated themselves was wiped off in a patriotic frenzy. The financial aid sent to the striking miners from Russia was indignantly rejected with the epithet of “that damned Russian gold.” The red flag was hastily dropped for the Union Jack. Purcell and his colleagues proved to be not “the organizatory center that embraces the international forces of the proletariat for struggle,” but a most reliable prop of a desperate ruling class. A more annihilating indictment of the Stalinist view and corroboration of the Opposition’s, could hardly be imagined.

Where was the Committee as a whole during those stir ring days of struggle and treachery? As Kautsky said plaintively about the Second International in 1914: It was only an instrument of peace; in times of war it was worthless.

More correctly, it was worthless to the revolutionists, to Russia. To the British partners in the concern, it had a distinct value. Purcell, Swales and Hicks utilized to the maximum the prestige accruing to them out of their formal and inexpensive collaboration with the Bolshevik representatives in the Anglo-Russian Committee. Instead of helping to emancipate the British masses from the chains of their false leaders, the A-RC served these leaders as a “Bolshevik” shield from the blows of the rank and file, particularly of the Communists. Purcell, under attack of “his own” Communists, could easily defend his treason by saying: The Russian Communists are different; they do not attack us as you do. Quite the contrary, they sit together with us in harmonious conference.

The Opposition promptly demanded that the prestige enjoyed among the British workers by the A-RC and its Russian half in particular, be employed to expose the treachery of the British leaders. It demanded a demonstrative break with Purcell and Co. so that the latter could no longer hide behind the Russian trade unions. Stalin and Bucharin violently opposed the break – just as violently as, a few years later, they opposed any and every united front not merely with the Purcells but with the “social-fascist” workers who still followed the reactionary leaders.

For more than a year after the abominable betrayal of the General Strike, Stalin continued to maintain his “united front” with Purcell. The Anglo-Russian Committee would prevent British intervention in Russia and there by enable the Soviet republic... to build up socialism undisturbed.

This fatal course was pursued until the Berlin conference of the Committee in April 1927. Did the Committee protest against the bombardment of Nanking by British gunboats? Did it protest against the police raid upon the Arcos, the Soviet trading organization in London? Did it say a single word about the treachery of its British partner during the general strike and the miners’ strike? It did none of these things. But for that, it did adopt an astounding resolution in which Russians and Englishmen both declare:

“The only representatives and spokesmen of the trade union movement are the Congress of the British Trade unions and its General Council;

“... esteems, at the same time, that the fraternal union between the trade union movements of the two countries, incorporated in the Anglo-Russian Committee, cannot and must not violate or restrict their rights and autonomy as the directing organs of the trade union movement of the respective countries; nor interfere in any manner whatsoever in their internal affairs.”

This document, which could not but have a stunning effect upon the British Communists, and the Minority Movement in particular, registered the high-water mark of capitulation to Purcell and Co. (who in turn “capitulated” to Baldwin and the bourgeoisie at every decisive moment). All of this was done in the name of socialism in one country. The failure of Communism to act in a revolutionary manner in England, the prohibition against drawing the basic lessons of the Anglo-Russian Committee experience and the resultant decisive defeat to the movement -set back the Communist forces in Great Britain for years.

The Anglo-Russian Committee was one disappointment after another to those who accepted these illusions as Bolshevism. It was a classic example of how the united front should not be made. The vindication of the stand point of the Left Opposition, however, was attained at the cost of a new step in the bureaucratic-reformist degeneration of the ruling regime in Russia and the International.

It was not to be the last of such costly vindications. For the same period produced those catastrophic consequences of Stalinist policy which ruined the Chinese revolution.


Last updated on 9.4.2005