May 19, 1926
The article printed below consists of fragments written at various times since the end of last year. These fragments were originally intended to form the material for a more complete work. The General Strike like any momentous event at once shifted our perspectives, brought forward some problems and removed others. From the point of view of understanding and evaluating the General Strike and its outcome it would now appear more appropriate to print these fragments in the form they were written, that is, chronologically following the facts and events to which they refer.
December 22, 1925
We have already mentioned that we have in our possession two letters from a British “left” socialist separated by an interval of several weeks. The first letter was written before the Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party (September 1925)  and the second after it.
The most fateful question in the world of politics (writes our correspondent in the first letter) is without doubt the question of what will take place at Liverpool at the Annual Labour Party Conference ... The Liverpool Conference will in all probability not only reverse last year’s resolution banning communists from membership but it will possibly give rise to a decisive split in the ranks of the Labour Party.
As we now know exactly the opposite happened. The right wing were wholly victorious. The lefts presented the most wretched picture of impotence and confusion. The ban on communists was endorsed and strengthened.
In the second letter written just after the conference our correspondent makes the following admission:
With regard to the Liverpool Conference at which I was not present, I can make only one comment. The rights gained the upper hand while the lefts once again revealed insufficient cohesion. The communists also gained a victory. The rights played directly into the hands of the communists ...
Our correspondent himself scarcely understands what this signifies. But nonetheless the logic of the facts is simple: if you wish for victory over MacDonaldism, over organized betrayal and over treachery elevated into a system then you must operate not in the spirit of the “lefts” but in the spirit of the Bolsheviks. It is in this sense and only in this sense that the rights play into the hands of the communists.
The working class is in the words of the same critic “burdened by both the extreme wings”. How remarkably put! What our “left” calls the right wing is the official leadership of the Labour Party. The political will of the British proletariat must pass willy-nilly through the customs house of Thomas and MacDonald. The opposite wing, that is the communists, represent a tiny persecuted minority inside the labour movement. In what way can the working class be “burdened” by them? It is at liberty to listen to them or not for they do not have in their hands any means of imposing themselves. Standing behind Thomas and MacDonald is the whole machine of the capitalist state. MacDonald expels the communists while Baldwin puts them in jail. The one complements the other. The working class will be able to throw off MacDonald only when it genuinely wishes to throw off Baldwin. It is absolutely true that the working class is burdened by its dependence on the conservative Fabian bourgeois. But how it can rid itself of them and what path it should choose it still does not know. The lefts reflect the lethargy of the British working class. They convert its as yet vaguely defined but profound and stubborn aspiration to free itself from Baldwin and MacDonald into left phrases of opposition which do not place any obligations upon them. They convert the political feebleness of the awakening masses into an ideological mish-mash. They represent the expression of a shift but also its, brake.
We have already heard a prophecy to the effect that the Liverpool Conference would give rise to a decisive split in the ranks of the Labour Party and we have seen what a cruel mockery life has made of this prophecy. The essential thing about centrists is that they do not make a decision to decide. It required the imperialist war to force the centrists to split away temporarily from the social-imperialists. As soon as the impact of events was relaxed the centrists turned back. Centrism is incapable of an independent policy. Centrism cannot be the leading party in the working class. The essential thing about centrism is that it does not make a decision to decide except where events seize it firmly by the throat. But it has not yet reached this stage in Britain: that is why there was no split at Liverpool.
But what would have happened if a split had nevertheless taken place? Our correspondent leaves us unclear on this question:
As a result of such a split in the existing Labour Party two parties would in the end be formed, the one left-liberal and the other genuinely socialist. Even if you allow that development will lead to economic crises and revolutions, the socialist party which would emerge from the split would be able to place itself at the head of the revolution, yet Trotsky does not take this point into account.
In this argument grains of truth become lost in a welter of confusion. Of course a split by centrists like our critic away from the Fabian bourgeoisie would not be irrelevant to the labour movement. But to bring about such a split at present would require insight and determination, which are the very qualities of which the British “opposition” has not the slightest trace. If the centrists do split away then it will be at the last minute when there is no other way out. But a party which hatches out at the “last moment” cannot lead the revolution. This does not mean that the centrists who have split away could not find themselves temporarily “at the head” of the masses similar to the German Independents and even Social-Democracy at the end of 1918 and to our Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries  after February 1917. Such a stage in the development of the British revolution cannot be excluded. It may even prove to be inevitable if the sharpening of social contradictions proceeds more rapidly than the formation of the Communist Party. Under the pressure of a General Strike and a victorious uprising) a certain section of the “left” leaders could even come to power – with approximately the same sensations and moods with which a calf goes to the slaughter. Such a state of affairs would not however last long. The independents despite all their policy might come to power. But they could not retain that power. From the centrists power must pass either to the communists or return to the bourgeoisie.
The German Independents who had against their will been elevated to the summit of power by the revolution immediately shared it with Ebert  and Scheidemann.  Ebert immediately entered into negotiations with General Groener to suppress the workers. The Independents criticized the Spartacists , the Social-Democrats slandered them and the army officer-caste shot Liebknecht  and Luxemburg.  Events from then on followed their logical sequence. The coalition of the Social-Democrats and Independents gave way to a coalition of capitalists and Social-Democrats. And then the Social-Democrats proved unnecessary. Ebert died at the right moment. The revolution which had started out against Hindenburg  ended up by electing Hindenburg President of the Republic. And by that time the Independents had already returned to Ebert’s ranks.
In Russia the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary patriots who, in the name of defence, had opposed the revolution by every means, were raised to power by the revolution. The Bolshevik Party despite a decade and a half of uncompromising educational, organizational and militant work found itself in the early stages in an insignificant minority. While prepared at any moment to come forward on the left flank against every attempt at counter-revolution it all the same set course for a ruthless ideological struggle against those parties which had found themselves against their will at the head of the revolution”. Only thanks to this did October become possible.
A split by the British independents from MacDonald and Thomas five minutes before the bell is not excluded. Nor, in the case of a precipitate development of events, is the centrists’ coming to power excluded. One cannot doubt that in this event they will implore MacDonald and Webb to share their burden with them. Nor can one doubt that MacDonald, either personally or through Thomas, will conduct negotiations with Joynson-Hicks. A powerful mechanism for liquidating the proletarian half-victory will be set in motion. It is quite possible that a new split will take place within the lefts. But the development will follow the “Russian” rather than the “German” path only where there is present a mass communist party armed with a clear understanding of the whole course of development.
December 28, 1925
Our “left” critic accuses us of the very fact that we place our stakes on the British Communist Party. This does not mean that he himself rejects it out of hand. No, the position of a “left”, drifting like a boat without rudder or sails, consists in neither acknowledging anything out of hand nor totally rejecting anything. Here we once again feel obliged to make a quotation:
Instead of seeking to regenerate the masses they (the communists) attempted to drive them along with a bludgeon and the masses do not take to this at all. A striking testimony in support of the correctness of the principles they defend lies in the fact that in spite of their crude tricks at the expense of their friends and their enemies and in spite of their very deep ignorance of the very masses that they wish to lead they nevertheless do have a great influence. If workers join them then they do so out of desperation and because they can see no other answer – not because they approve of the party as it is now but because they are forced to accept its conclusions.
This statement is truly remarkable as an involuntary testimony by an opponent in support of those ideas and methods against which he is waging a struggle. The inner strength of communism proves to be so great that an increasing number come to support it in spite of the “crude” character of the communists. “But the workers do so out of desperation!” exclaims our critic himself too apparently not without desperation. It is completely correct that workers come – and increasingly so as time goes on – to a state of real “desperation” because of worthless, treacherous. cowardly or dissolute leadership. Nor can one think that the British workers with their age-old traditions of liberal politics, parliamentarism, compromises, national self-esteem and so on will take to the revolutionary path other than in a state of utter desperation with those very politics which had previously given them something but which all along the line deceived them. Here the critic has come to the crux of the matter. It is just herein that the strength of the communist party lies, in that despite its numerical weakness, its inexperience and its mistakes the whole situation increasingly compels the working masses to pay heed to it.
Bruce , the Australian Prime Minister, in defending his policy of banishing revolutionary labour leaders, said on the eve of the last elections:
The Communist Party in Australia has a membership of less than a thousand. But it is able to direct 400,000 workers in the Commonwealth.
The Times quoted these words with great approval (see the leading article of 12th November, 1925). While speaking about Australia The Times of London has Britain in mind of course. In order to emphasize this the newspaper states with a blunt frankness:
The truth is that the great majority of those Labour leaders in Australia who are moderate in their views are equally moderate in their ability. The control of the party is passing more and more into the hands of its “wild men”.
This is what in Russian is called “beating the cat but slanging the sister-in-law”. We are quite prepared to agree with the paper that the ability of the official leaders of the British Labour Party (this is what The Times implies) is just as moderate as their views. But in the last resort independent abilities are not required of them for they transmit the will and the ideas of the British bourgeoisie into the milieu of the working class. They were “skilful” for just as long as the bourgeoisie was all-powerful. We should say that even the sage Times seems to us somewhat inane when it mumbles away about the mutual relations between the United States and Britain. This stems from an inner consciousness of weakness together with an effort to preserve the appearance of strength and a restrained gnashing of teeth. In the final count the cause of the decline of The Times as well as the disclosure of MacDonald’s modest capabilities lies in the poor balance of trade and payments of Great Britain. And inasmuch as the most powerful historical factors are at work in the disruption of the British balance of payments there can be no doubt that the working masses will increasingly fall into desperation with their old leaders and fall under the influence of the “wild men”.
January 5, 1926
In an American publication with pretensions to Marxism and even communism (Freiheit) it has been pointed out in condemnation that while criticizing the British centrists I had failed to take into account that “revolution” which had already taken place in the British trade unions.
There is no need at this point to mention the fact that the causes and prospects of the evolution of the trade unions have been noted in the chapter Trade Unions and Bolshevism. Nor is, there any need to repeat the rudimentary concept that without a turn by the working class, and consequently by its trade unions too, towards a revolutionary road there can be no talk of a conquest of power by the proletariat. But it would be the utmost disgrace to brush aside the struggle against opportunism in the top leadership by alluding to the profound revolutionary processes taking place in the working class. Such a supposedly “profound” approach stems entirely from a failure to understand the role and the significance of the party in the movement of the working class and especially in the revolution. For it has always been centrism which has cloaked and continues to cloak the sins of opportunism with solemn references to the objective tendencies of development. Is it worth wasting time and energy in fighting the muddleheads of the type of Wheatley, Brailsford, Purcell, Kirkwood and others, now that revolutionary aspirations are on the increase in the proletariat, now that the trade unions are turning towards co-operation with the Soviet trade unions and so on and so forth? But in actual fact expressed in this alleged revolutionary objectivism is merely an effort to shirk revolutionary tasks by shifting them on to the shoulders of the so-called historical process.
And it is in Britain that the danger of this sort of tendency is particularly great. Yesterday we had to prove that objective conditions there are working in a revolutionary direction. To keep repeating this today is to knock at an open door. The growing preponderance of America; the burden of debts and military expenditure; the industrialization of the colonies, dominions and the backward countries in general; the economic strengthening of the Soviet Union and the growth of its attractive revolutionary force; the liberation movement of the oppressed nations; all these are factors which are growing. Through an inevitable series of fluctuations in the conjuncture of events British capitalism is going to meet a catastrophe. It is clear what shifts in the correlations and consciousness of classes this implies. But the objective pre-conditions of the proletarian revolution are being prepared and are maturing far more rapidly than are the subjective. And this is what above all must be remembered today.
The danger is not that the bourgeoisie will again pacify the proletariat, nor that an era of liberal labour politics is again opening up before the trade unions: the United States has monopolized for itself the ability to give a privileged position to broad circles of the proletariat. The danger comes from another direction: the formation of a proletarian vanguard can lag behind the development of a revolutionary situation. While faced with the necessity for decisive actions the proletariat might not find at its head the necessary political leadership. This is the question of the party. And this is the central question. The most mature revolutionary situation without a revolutionary party of due stature and without correct leadership is the same as a knife without a blade. This is what we saw in Germany in the autumn of 1923. A Bolshevik Party will take shape in Britain only in a perpetual and irreconcilable struggle against centrism which is becoming the substitute for the Liberal policy of Labour.
January 6, 1926
The struggle for a united front has such importance in Britain precisely because it answers the elementary requirements of the working class in the new orientation and grouping of forces. The struggle for a united front will thereby pose the problem of leadership, that is of programme and tactics and this means the party. Yet the struggle for a united front will not in itself solve this task but will merely create the conditions for its solution. The ideological and organizational formation of a genuinely revolutionary, that is of a communist, party on the basis of the movement of the masses is conceivable only under the condition of a perpetual, systematic, inflexible, untiring and irreconcilable unmasking of the quasi-left leaders of every hue, of their confusion, of their compromises and of their reticence. It would be the crudest blunder to think – and this can be seen to happen – that the task of the struggle for a united front consists in obtaining a victory for Purcell, Lansbury, Wheatley and Kirkwood over Snowden, Webb and MacDonald. Such an objective would contain within itself a contradiction. The left muddleheads are incapable of power; but if through the turn of events it fell into their hands they would hasten to pass it over to their elder brothers on the right. They would do the same with the state as they are now doing in the party.
The history of the German Independents, let us again recall, provides us with instructive lessons on this account. In Germany the process took place at a more rapid tempo owing to the directly revolutionary character of the recent years of German history. But the general tendencies of the development are the same whether you call MacDonald Ebert or you christen Wheatley and Cook, Crispien  and Hilferding.  The fact that Hilferding, the most vulgar Philistine, still makes references to Marx while Wheatley displays a preference for the Holy Father in Rome flows from the peculiarities of Britain’s past as compared with that of Germany but for the present day it is of tenth-rate importance.
January 7, 1926
The left faction at the top of the trade unions leads the General Council on a number of questions. This expresses itself most clearly in the attitude towards the Soviet trade unions and to Amsterdam.  But it would be a mistake to overestimate the influence of these lefts upon the unions as the organizations of class struggle. This is not so much because the masses in the trade unions are not radical enough, on the contrary the masses are immeasurably more left than the most left of the leaders. In the British labour movement international questions have always been a path of least resistance for the “leaders”. In regarding international issues as a sort of safety valve for the radical mood of the masses Messrs. leaders are prepared to bow to a certain degree to revolution (elsewhere) only the more surely to take revenge on the questions of the domestic class struggle. The left faction on the General Council is distinguished by a total ideological formlessness and for this very reason it is incapable of consolidating around itself organizationally the leadership of the trade union movement.
This too explains the impotence of the lefts within the Labour Party. The latter rests of course upon the same trade unions. It might appear that the left faction which “leads” the General Council would have taken control of the Labour Party. But we see something quite different in reality. The extreme rights continue to control the party. This can be explained by the fact that a party cannot confine itself to isolated left campaigns but is compelled to have an overall system policy. The lefts have no such system nor by their very essence can they. But the rights do: with them stands tradition, experience and routine and, most important, with them stands bourgeois society as a whole which slips them ready-made solutions. For MacDonald has only to translate Baldwin’s and Lloyd George’s suggestions into Fabian language. The rights win despite the fact that the lefts are more numerous. The weakness of the lefts arises from their disorder and their disorder from their ideological formlessness. In order to marshal their ranks the lefts have first of all to rally their ideas. The best of them will only be capable of doing so under the fire of the most ruthless criticism based upon the everyday experience of the masses.
January 12, 1926
More influential leaders of the “lefts” like Purcell, Cook and Bromley besides our “left” critic in his letter were as late as 17th September predicting that the Labour Party Conference would be distinguished by a great swing to the left. The opposite came about: the Liverpool Conference which was separated by a few weeks from the Scarborough Trades Union Congress  gave a complete victory to MacDonald. To ignore this fact, to gloss over it, to minimize it or to explain it by accidental secondary causes would be crass stupidity and courting defeats.
The party has fundamentally the same base as have the trade union leaders. But the General Council whose authority is extremely limited does not have any power over individual trade unions nor less over the country. But the Labour Party has already stood in power and is about to do so again. This is the gist of the question,
In connection with the Scarborough Congress the liberal Manchester Guardian wrote that Moscow’s influence made itself felt only in the left phraseology while in practice the trade unions remained under the leadership of wise and experienced leaders. The liberal newspaper has need of consolation. But there is in its assertions an element of truth and a large one at that. The resolutions of the congress were the more to the left the further removed they were from immediate practical tasks. Of course the leftness of the resolutions is symptomatic, marking a turn in the consciousness of the masses. But to think that the leading figures at Scarborough might become the leaders of a revolutionary overthrow of power would be to lull oneself with illusions. It is sufficient to recall that 3,802,000 votes were cast in favour of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination and even to secession and only 79,000 against. What an enormous revolutionary swing this might appear to be! Yet on the question of forming shop committees – not for an armed uprising nor for a General Strike but for nothing more than forming shop committees and only “in principle” at that – the voting was 2,183,000 in favour and 1,787,000 against; in other words congress was split almost in half. On the question of extending the powers of the General Council the lefts suffered a complete defeat. It is small wonder if after all the left resolutions the new General Council has proven to be more right than the old one. It must be clearly understood: this sort of leftism remains only as long as it does not impose any practical obligations. As soon as a question of action arises the lefts respectfully surrender the leadership to the rights.
January 13, 1926
A spontaneous radicalization of the trade unions expressing a deep shift in the masses is in itself totally inadequate to liberate the working class from the leadership of Thomas and MacDonald. National bourgeois ideology in Britain presents a formidable force – not only in public opinion but also in established institutions. “Radical” trade unionism will break itself again and again against this force as long as it is led by centrists who cannot draw the necessary conclusions.
At the same time as the British unions fraternize with the Soviet trade unions which are under the leadership of communist, at Liverpool the British Labour Party which rests upon these same unions expels British communists from its ranks thus preparing a government-fascist operation to smash their organizations. It would be criminal to forget for one day that lefts such as Brailsford and even Lansbury in effect approved of the Liverpool Conference resolution and blamed the communists for it all. It is true that when indignation with the reactionary police-state spirit of the Liverpool conference revealed itself from the lower ranks, the “left” leaders readily changed their line. But to evaluate them one must take both sides of the matter into account. Revolutionaries need a good memory. Messrs. “lefts” do not have a line of their own. They will go on swinging to the right under the pressure of bourgeois-Fabian reaction and to the left under the pressure of the masses. In difficult moments these pious Christians are always ready to play the part if not of Herod then of Pontius Pilate and facing the British working class there are many difficult moments ahead.
There is inside the Independent Labour Party a movement favouring unification of the Second and the Third Internationals. But try asking these people whether they would agree not to unification but to a militant agreement with British communists and they recoil there and then. In all matters relating to revolution there reigns supreme among the British “lefts” a “love for the distant”. They are for the October revolution, for Soviet power, for the Soviet trade unions and even for a rapprochement with the Comintern but under the immutable condition that the British Constitution, the system of parliamentarism and the system of the Labour Party suffer no harm. It is necessary to direct the main blow against this repulsive two-faced policy of the lefts.
To this one should add in the sympathies of many lefts for the Soviet Union (alongside hostility towards their own communists) there is contained a good deal of the deference of the petty-bourgeois towards a strong state power. This should not be forgotten. Of course the petty-bourgeois who has turned his face towards the Soviet Union is more progressive than the petty-bourgeois who goes on his knees before the United States. This is a step forward. But one cannot build revolutionary perspectives on such a deference.
December 25, 1925
A foreign communist who knows Britain well and has only recently left there wrote to me the other day as follows:
During my stay in England I had numerous conversations with certain prominent left leaders on the subject of the British revolution. I brought away approximately this picture: they are sure that in the near future they will win a majority in parliament and will commence a cautious but decisive implementation of the maximum demands of the working class such as the nationalization of the mines, certain other branches of industry, the banks and so on. If the industrialists and bankers dare to resist then they will be straight away arrested and their enterprises will be nationalized too. To my question: what in this case will the fascist bourgeoisie who have the army and the navy in their hands do? they replied: in event of armed resistance on the part of the fascists they will be declared outlaws and the overwhelming majority of the British people will back the Labour Party in defence of the legal government. When I pointed out: since they will inevitably resort to arms wouldn’t it be better to prepare the working class now for such an outcome so that the armed forces of the bourgeoisie cannot catch it off guard? they replied: such a preparatory move would be a premature signal for civil war and would prevent the Labour Party from winning a majority in parliament. To the question: on which side of the barricades will MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas and their friends be, they replied: on the side of the bourgeoisie most probably. Why then do you work together with them against the communists in order to strengthen a party leadership which Will betray the working class at the critical moment? To this came the reply: we think that we will nevertheless  retain a majority in parliament behind us and that a split by MacDonald and his liberal friends will not threaten in the slightest a favourable outcome to a peaceful revolution.
This sheaf of personal impressions and conversations is truly precious. These people have decided in advance to come to power in no other way than through the asses’ gate which the enemy, armed to the teeth and standing guard, has shown them to. If they, the lefts, take power (through the indicated gate) and if the bourgeoisie rise up against this legal power then the good British people will not tolerate this. And if MacDonald and Thomas whom the wise lefts are carrying on their backs are found by chance to be in a plot with the armed bourgeoisie against the unarmed workers then this should not cause alarm to anyone for the lefts have provided for victory in this event. In a word the brave spirits and wise men have firmly decided to conquer the bourgeoisie whatever the political combinations and at the same time maintaining the best relations with parliament, the law, the courts and the police. The only trouble is that the bourgeoisie does not intend to surrender the privilege of the legal expropriation of power to the lefts. By advancing the fascist wing more energetically, as the threat of civil war becomes more immediate, the bourgeoisie will find sufficient means of provocation, of a legal coup d’état and so on. In the final count the question is not who can best interpret laws and traditions but who is master in the house.
The discussion which has recently flared up in the British Labour Press on the question of self-defence is in the highest degree significant. The question itself arose not as a question of armed uprising for the seizure of power but as a question of strikers repulsing blacklegs and fascists.
We have already shown elsewhere how trade unionism by the logic of development – and especially in the period of capitalist decline – inevitably bursts the framework of democracy. It is not possible to postpone arbitrarily class conflicts until the conquest of a parliamentary majority. Cramped by its own decline the bourgeoisie puts pressure on the proletariat. The latter defends itself. Hence the inevitable strike clashes. The government prepares strike-breaking organizations on a scale previously unheard of. The fascists link up with the police. The workers pose the question of self-defence. At this point the foundation of civil war has already been laid.
A worker writes in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly ; “Fascism is purely and simply a military organization and is not amenable to argument. It can only be successfully countered by a similar organization on the other side.” The author recommends taking the military organization of fascism as a model. That is correct: the proletariat can and must learn military knowledge from the enemy.
And it is from the same source – the objective sharpening of class contradictions – that the aspiration of workers to draw soldiers over to their side flows. Agitation in the army and the navy is a second powerful element in the civil war the development of which does not stand in a direct connection with the winning of a parliamentary majority. The defection of a considerable part of the armed forces to the side of the workers can guarantee the conquest of power by the proletariat without any parliamentary majority. The workers’ majority in parliament can be destroyed if armed force is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Whoever does not understand this is not a socialist but a numbskull.
In opposition to the slogan of arming the workers the wise men of the left have scraped together all the prejudices and platitudes of centuries past: the superiority of the moral factor over force, the advantages of gradual reforms, the anarcho-pacifist idea of the peaceful General Strike which they require not as a means of struggle but as an argument against insurrection, and a heroic readiness ... to permit violence in the so-called “extreme case when it is forced on us”. Obviously this means when the enemy has caught you off guard and is crushing you unarmed against the wall.
March 5, 1926 (from a letter)
In Britain more than in all the rest of Europe the consciousness of the working masses, and particularly that of their leading layers, lags behind the objective economic situation. Arid it is precisely in this direction that the main difficulties and dangers lie today. All shades of bosses of the British labour movement fear action because the historical impasse of British capitalism places ever, problem of the labour movement, however major, at point-blank range. This applies especially to the coal industry. The present miners’ wages are maintained by a subsidy from the state, burdening an already crippling budget. To continue the subsidy means to accumulate and deepen the economic crisis. To withdraw the subsidy means to produce a social crisis.
The necessity of a technical and economic reconstruction of the coal industry represents a profoundly revolutionary problem and requires a political “reconstruction” of the working class. The destruction of the conservatism of the British coal industry, this foundation of British capitalism, can only be through the destruction of the conservative organizations, traditions and customs of the British labour movement. Britain is entering an entire historical phase of major upheavals. An “economic” solution of the problem can be expected only by the conservative British trade union leaders. But it is just because the British trade union leaders direct their efforts towards an “economic” (i.e. peaceful, conciliatory, conservative) solution of the problem, that is they run in defiance of the historical process, that the revolutionary development of the working class in Britain in the period to come will have higher overhead costs than in any other country. Both the rights and the lefts, including of course both Purcell and Cook, fear to the utmost the beginning of the denouément. Even when in words they admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution they are hoping in their hearts for some miracle which will release them from these perspectives. And in any event they themselves will stall, evade, temporize, shift responsibility and effectively assist Thomas over any really major question of the British labour movement (with regard to international questions they are a bit bolder!).
Hence the general situation can be characterized in this way. The economic blind alley of the country which is most sharply expressed in the coal industry thrusts the working class on to the path of seeking a solution, that is on to the path of an even sharper struggle. Its very first stage will as a result reveal the inadequacy of the “usual” methods of struggle. The whole of the present-day “superstructure” of the British working class – in all its shades and groupings without exception – represents a braking mechanism on the revolution. This portends over a prolonged period the heavy pressure of a spontaneous and semi-spontaneous movement against the framework of the old organizations and the formation of new revolutionary organizations on the basis of this pressure.
One of our principal tasks is to assist the British Communist Party to understand and think out this perspective fully. Inside the trade union apparatus and amongst its left wing the active elements, that is the elements which are capable of understanding the inevitability of major mass battles, and who are not afraid of them but go to meet them, must be sifted out far more energetically and decisively than has been done up to now. The tactic of the united front must be increasingly and more firmly placed within the context of this perspective.
With regard to the miners’ strike, it is not of course a question of an isolated strike, however big it may be, but the commencement of a whole series of social conflicts and crises. In this situation one cannot of course orientate oneself with the conceptions of Purcell and others. They fear the struggle more than anyone. Their thoughts and words can at best have in our eyes the importance of a symptom.
The British trade unions fear (in the form of their bureaucracy and even of its left) our “intervention” in their internal affairs no less than Chamberlain does.
There are any number of inhibiting elements in the apparatus of the British working class. The whole situation can be summarized in the fact that the alarm, discontent and pressure of the British working masses is all along the line running up against the organizational and ideological barriers of the conservatism of the apparatus. Under these conditions to worry about how best to assist the impatient leaders is really to pour water into the ocean
Everything goes to suggest that in Britain in the next period (I have in mind two or three years), a struggle will break out against the will of the old organizations yet with the complete unpreparedness of the young ones. Of course even with the firm revolutionary (i.e. active) footing of the Communist Party and of the best “left” elements it cannot be assumed that the proletariat will come to power as the result of the first big wave by itself. But the question is this: Will this left wing pass through the first stage of the revolution at the head of the working masses as we passed through 1905; or will it miss a revolutionary situation as the German party did in 1923? This latter danger is in the highest degree a real one. It can only be reduced by helping the left wing (the really left wing and not Lansbury or Purcell) to an effective orientation. And to accomplish this task (that of assisting the revolutionary elements in Britain to a correct orientation) it must be clearly understood that all the traditions, organizational habits and the ideas of all the already existing groupings in the labour movement in different forms and with different slogans predispose them either towards direct treachery or towards compromise, or else towards temporizing and passivity in relation to the compromisers, and complaints about the traitors. [See below for a further article on this subject written on May 6]
May 13, 1926
The defeat of the General Strike is “logical” at the present stage in that it flows from all the conditions of its origin and development. This defeat could have been foreseen. There is nothing demoralizing about it. But we will deal with the lessons of the defeat and of the General Strike itself later.
From a speech to the 6th Congress of Textile Workers, January 29, 1926
Take just a cursory glance at the situation in the chief European states today, and you are bound to conclude that history, in approaching its day of reckoning, is in no mood to play around with Europe. The strongest country in Europe is Britain. Leaning on Europe, Britain has grown accustomed to a position where ruling over the world comes as easily to her as breathing. The Englishman (I have in mind of course the ruling Englishman, a bourgeois or a lord) has thought of himself for centuries as nothing less than the ruler of the world. Yet today the former sovereign of the oceans and continents is staggering under irreversible blows: the rise of the colonies, their. economic development and drive for independence; the national upsurge and the growth of industry in the Dominions; the growth of competition, first from Germany – who had to be strangled – and then from the United States – who will not be strangled, and will in fact do any strangling there is to be done. And finally, the growth of the might of the Soviet Union, reflecting the rise of the oppressed peoples and oppressed classes of the whole world. Britain is sliding further and further downhill before our eyes.
Today, I believe you sent greetings to the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. How did that come about? It grew out of the economic decline of Britain. Comrades of the older generation, those who were learning their Marxism twenty and twenty-five years ago, will remember how the British trade unions used to be regarded as a bulwark of conservatism. Where did our hopes lie? With the German workers first of all, and then the French workers, but we said that the British worker would be the third, fourth or fifth to launch into struggle. And this because the upper layers were accustomed to an aristocratic position made possible only by the privileged position of British industry. Twenty-five years ago – and that’s not such a long time – the Russian revolutionaries of the day had offered to fraternize with the British workers’ leaders, and if twenty years ago Tomsky  had been sent to London to join with British trade unionists they would have told him where to go. [Laughter] But now the trade unions receive Tomsky as a brother. What is the reason for this change? It is that the last decades have undermined British industry, leaving not a trace of the privileged position of the working class, with the result that the British worker has become proletarianized politically. He is in search of a new source of support and it is no chance matter that he finds it first and foremost in our Soviet trade unions. The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee is the highest expression of the shift in the situation of all Europe and especially Britain, which is taking place before our very eyes and will lead to the proletarian revolution. There can be no other solution.
Not so long ago a Conservative government came to power in Britain promising to rectify the economic ills of the country with protectionist policies. We predicted failure for Mr. Baldwin along this road: Britain lives on imported agricultural produce, raw materials and semi-finished goods, and therefore cannot become a protectionist country. If one branch of industry prospers from protective tariffs, another will perish. Baldwin nonetheless even lured along a considerable section of workers by promising to save British industry by means of a protectionist system of high customs duties. But what were the results? Protectionism was brought in for ladies’ gloves, carpet tacks, and I believe for toilet paper [Laughter] ... and for two or three other items equally necessary to life, but without this resurrecting the British economy. The last-mentioned commodity is possibly the most fitting symbol of the Conservative government’s protectionist programme in action. [Applause, laughter]
To be sure, back in his Leeds speech Baldwin instructed us all (especially transgressors like me) that the first requirement is gradualness. Don’t hurry, don’t overstep the mark, gradualness above all! But if Baldwin wishes to take protective measures for British industry with this gradualness then some three hundred years will pass while he is carrying out his programme. Life, of course, does not wait: the working class is shifting to the left and the formation of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee was no accident. And we have yet to see how with God’s help – for in Baldwin’s realm nothing can happen without God’s help – the British bourgeois regime will be “gradually” overthrown.
From Pravda, 25th and 26th May, 1926
May 6, 1926
A year ago the Conservative government was still on its honeymoon. Baldwin was preaching social peace. With nothing to oppose to Conservatism, MacDonald rivalled it in hatred of revolution, civil war and class struggle. The leaders of all three parties pronounced the institutions of Britain entirely adequate to ensuring peaceful collaboration between the classes. Naturally, the revolutionary prognosis for the future of the British Empire made in this book [Where is Britain Going – Ed.] was declared by the whole of the British press – from the Morning Post to Lansbury’s Labour Weekly – to be hopeless drivel and Moscow phantasmagoria.
Today the situation looks somewhat different. Britain is convulsed by a huge mass strike. The Conservative government is carrying on a policy of frantic onslaught. From the top, everything is being done to provoke open civil war. The contradiction between basic social facts and the fraud of an outlived parliamentarism has been revealed in Britain as never before.
The mass strike arose from the imbalance between the current position of the British economy on the world market and the traditional industrial and class relations within the country. Formally the question at issue was one of reducing miners’ wages, lengthening their working day and throwing part of the sacrifices necessary for a serious reorganization of the coal industry onto the workers’ shoulders. Put in this way the question is insoluble. It is perfectly true that the coal industry, and indeed the British economy as a whole, cannot be reorganized without sacrifices on the part of the British proletariat, and substantial ones at that. But only a wretched fool can imagine that the British proletariat will agree to shoulder these sacrifices on the old foundations of private property.
Capitalism has been portrayed as a system of continual progress and consistent improvement in the lot of the labouring masses. This used to be the case to a certain extent, at least in some countries during the nineteenth century. In Britain the religion of capitalist progress was more potent than anywhere else. And it was just this that formed the foundation of the conservative tendencies in the labour movement itself and especially in the trade unions. Britain’s wartime illusions (1914-1918) were, more than anywhere else, the illusions of capitalist might and social “progress”. In the victory over Germany these hopes were supposed to find their highest fulfilment. Yet now bourgeois society says to the miners: “If you want to secure for yourselves at least the kind of existence you had before the war, you must reconcile yourselves to a worsening of all your conditions of life over an indefinite period.” Instead of the perspective of uninterrupted social progress recently held out to them, the miners are invited to move down one step today so as to avoid tumbling down three or more steps tomorrow. This is a declaration of bankruptcy on the part of British capitalism. The General Strike is the answer of the proletariat, which will not and cannot allow the bankruptcy of British capitalism to signify the bankruptcy of the British nation and of British culture.
This answer, however, has been dictated by the logic of the situation far more than by the logic of consciousness. The British working class had no other choice. The struggle, whatever its backstage mechanics, was thrust upon it by the mechanical pressure of the whole set of circumstances. The world position of the British economy did not leave the material basis for a voluntary compromise. The Thomases, MacDonalds and the rest have ended up like windmills whose sails turn in a strong wind but fail to produce a single pound of flour because there is no corn for them to grind. The hopeless emptiness of present-day British reformism has found itself so convincingly unmasked that the reformists were left with no other recourse than to take part in the mass strike of the proletariat. This revealed the strength of the strike – but also its weakness.
A general strike is the sharpest form of class struggle. It is only one step from the general strike to armed insurrection. This is precisely why the general strike, more than any other form of class struggle, requires clear, distinct, resolute and therefore revolutionary leadership. In the current strike of the British proletariat there is not a ghost of such a leadership, and it is not to be expected that it can be conjured up out of the ground. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress set out with the ridiculous statement that the present General Strike did not represent a political struggle and did not in any event constitute an assault upon the state power of the bankers, industrialists and landowners, or upon the sanctity of British parliamentarism. This most loyal and submissive declaration of war does not, however, appear the least bit convincing to the government, which feels the real instruments of rule slipping out of its hands under the effect of the strike. State power is not an “idea” but a material apparatus. When the apparatus of government and suppression is paralysed the state power itself is thereby paralysed. In modern society no-one can hold power without controlling the railways, shipping, posts, telegraphs, power stations, coal and so on. The fact that MacDonald and Thomas have sworn to renounce any political objectives may typify them personally but it in no way typifies the nature of the General Strike which if carried through to the end sets the revolutionary class the task of organising a new state power. Fighting against this with all their might, however, are those very people who by the course of events have been placed “at the head” of the General Strike. And in this the main danger lies. Men who did not want the General Strike, who deny the political nature of the General Strike, and fear above all the consequences of a victorious strike, must inevitably direct all their efforts towards keeping it within the bounds of a semi-political semi-strike, that is to say, towards emasculating it.
We must look facts in the face: the principal efforts of the official Labour Party leaders and of a considerable number of official trade union leaders will be directed not towards paralysing the bourgeois state by means of the strike but towards paralysing the General Strike by means of the bourgeois state. The government in the shape of its most die-hard Conservatives will without doubt want to provoke a small-scale civil war so as to gain the opportunity of applying measures of terror before the struggle has fully unfolded and so throw the movement back. By depriving the strike of a political programme, dissipating the revolutionary will of the proletariat and driving the movement up a blind alley the reformists are thereby pushing individual groups of workers on to the path of uncoordinated revolts. In this sense the reformists go towards meeting the most fascist elements in the Conservative Party. There lies the principal danger of the struggle now opening up.
Now is not the time to predict the duration, the course and still less the outcome of the struggle. Everything must be done on an international scale to aid the fighters and improve their chances of success. But it must be clearly recognized that such success is possible only to the extent that the British working class, in the process of the development and sharpening of the General Strike, realizes the need to change its leadership, and measures up to that task. There is an American proverb which says that you cannot change horses in midstream. But this practical wisdom is true only within certain limits. The stream of revolution has never been crossed on the horse of reformism, and the class which has entered the struggle under opportunist leadership will be compelled to change it under enemy fire. The conduct of the really revolutionary elements in the British proletariat and above all the communists is pre-determined by this. They will uphold the unity of mass action by every means; but they will not permit even the semblance of unity with the opportunist leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions. An implacable struggle against every act of treachery or attempted treachery and the ruthless exposure of the reformists’ illusions are the main elements in the work of the genuinely revolutionary participants in the General Strike. In this they will not only aid the fundamental and protracted task of developing new cadres, without which the victory of the British proletariat is wholly impossible, but they will directly assist the success of this strike by deepening it, uncovering its revolutionary tendencies, thrusting the opportunists aside and strengthening the position of the revolutionaries. The results of the strike, both the immediate and the more remote, will be the more significant the more resolutely the revolutionary force of the masses sweeps away the barriers erected by the counter-revolutionary leadership.
The strike cannot of itself alter the position of British capitalism, and the coal industry in particular, on the world market. This requires the reorganization of the whole British economy. The strike is only a sharp expression of this necessity. The programme for reorganizing the British economy is the programme of a new power, a new state and a new class. The fundamental importance of the General Strike is that it poses the question of power point-blank. A real victory for the General Strike lies only in the winning of power by the proletariat and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In view of the insolvency of British capitalism, the General Strike is less able than at any other time to be made a vehicle of reforms or partial gains. To be more precise, even if the mine-owners or the government were to make this or that economic concession under pressure of the strike, such concession could not, by virtue of the whole situation, be of a profound, still less of a lasting significance.
This in no way means, however, that the present strike faces the alternative: all or nothing. If the British proletariat had a leadership that came near to corresponding to its class strength and the ripeness of the conditions, power would pass out of the hands of the Conservatives and into the hands of the proletariat within a few weeks. But such an outcome cannot be relied upon. This again does not mean that the strike is futile. The more broadly it develops,, the more powerfully it shakes the foundations of capitalism and the further back it thrusts the treacherous and opportunist leaders the harder it will be for bourgeois reaction to go over to the counter-offensive, the less proletarian organizations will suffer, and the sooner will follow the next, more decisive stage of the fight.
The present collision of the classes will be a tremendous lesson and have immeasurable consequences, quite apart from its immediate results. It will become plain to every proletarian in Britain that parliament is powerless to solve the basic and most vital tasks of the country. The question of the economic salvation of Britain will henceforth confront the proletariat as a question of the conquest of power. All the intervening, mediating, compromising pseudo-pacifist elements will be dealt a mortal blow. The Liberal Party, however much its leaders may twist and turn, will emerge from such an ordeal even more insignificant than it entered it. Within the Conservative Party the most die-hard elements will obtain a preponderance. Within the Labour Party the revolutionary wing will gain in organization and influence. The Communists will advance decisively. The revolutionary development of Britain will take a gigantic stride towards its denouément.
In the light of the mighty strike wave now under way, the questions of evolution and revolution, of peaceful development and the use of force, of reforms and class dictatorship, will grip the consciousness of British workers in their hundreds of thousands and millions, with all their acuteness. Of this there can be no doubt. The British proletariat, kept by the bourgeoisie and its Fabian agents in a state of horrifying ideological backwardness, will now spring forward like a lion. Material conditions in Britain have long been ripe for socialism. The strike has placed on the agenda the replacement of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state. If the strike itself does not produce this change, it will bring it far closer. The exact date we cannot say. But we should be prepared for it to be early.
1. The Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party was held from 29th September to 2rd October 1925. The National Executive recommended that: (a) no member of the Communist Party should be eligible to become or remain a member of a local Labour Party and that (b) no affiliated trade union ought to appoint delegates who are communists to national or local Labour Party conferences. Pollitt of the Communist Party moved the reference back of (a), which was lost by 321,000 votes to 2,871,000. Shinwell moved the reference back of (b) which was lost by 480,000 to 1,692,000. In the period leading up to the conference the Communist Party had mounted a campaign for the lifting of the ban on communists and motions to this effect were passed by 75 local Labour Parties and trades councils and trades councils and three trade unions.
2. The Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party was founded by Chernov in 1903 from various petty bourgeois, populist and student groups. The party based itself on the peasantry and radical intelligentsia although it did recruit workers. In 1905 it allied itself with the bourgeois liberals and in 1906 the right wing formed a bloc with the Constitutional Democrats. Their essentially liberal politics were often masked by terrorist acts in the tradition of the populists. With the outbreak of war the majority took a patriotic stand although a small minority opposed the war. In 1917 the right wing of the party in the person of Kerensky, and the centre in the figure of Chernov, took a leading part in the Provisional Government and denied the peasants the land that the party had always promised them. The left wing of the party led by Spiridonova and Steinberg joined the Bolsheviks in the first workers’ and peasants’ government and formed a separate Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party in December 1917. After the Brest peace however they resigned and resorted to terrorism to provoke a resumption of the war with Germany and organized a rebellion against Soviet power in alliance with the Whites.
3. Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925), a saddler by trade, had acquired leading organizational posts in the German Social-Democratic Party by the time of Bebel’s death in 1913. He then shared the party leadership with Scheidemann and was, like him, a leading social-patriot during the war. When the Independents broke away in 1917 he concentrated the control of the party into his hands and played a key role in betraying the German revolution of November 1918 and preserving the capitalist state and army. From then until his death he was President of the bourgeois “Weimar” republic and was the most trusted agent of the bourgeoisie in the German labour movement.
4. Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939), Bebel’s closest colleague in the German Social-Democratic Party, took over its leadership (with Ebert) when Bebel died in 1913. A rabid patriot during the war, he played a decisive role in tying German labour and its party to the imperialist war effort. He became Chancellor of the first bourgeois coalition government in 1919. Retired from political life soon after.
5. Members of the revolutionary faction in German Social-Democracy formed in 1916 and led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Franz Mehring. They conducted revolutionary agitation against the war and after the November Revolution of 1918 when the Independents opposed Soviet power in Germany, they formed the Communist Party of Germany.
6. Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), founder of the German communist movement and son of the co-founder of the German Social-Democratic Party. Before the First World War he was an active opponent of militarism and was imprisoned for his agitation. In 1914 he, together with Luxemburg, Mehring and Zetkin publicly opposed the Social Democratic Party’s official support for the war. In 1915 he began to organize the Spartacus League and when the International Socialist Conference was held that year at Zimmerwald to formulate a policy of opposition to the war, he wrote from the army where he had been conscripted “Not civil peace but civil war – that is our slogan”. He was expelled from the Social-Democratic parliamentary group in 1916 and was imprisoned for anti-war agitation the same year. Greatly inspired by the Russian revolution and freed from prison by the 1918 revolution he led the struggle against the Social-Democrats and the Independents and for the immediate and unconditional transfer of state power to the Soviets formed in the revolution. He led the Berlin uprising of January 1919 and on its suppression by Scheidemann, Ebert and Noske was arrested and assassinated by a squad of counter-revolutionary officers.
7. Rosa Luxemburg was a left-Social Democrat who opposed the War and joined in the formation of the Spartacus League. Imprisoned during the war she wrote articles on a range of theoretical questions and in particular advocated the formation of a new International. After the 1918 revolution she took part in organizing the Communist Party and founded Rote Fahne its central organ. After the January uprising she was arrested and assassinated along with Karl Liebknecht.
8. Paul von Benekendorff und von Hindenburg (1847-1934), Prussian aristocrat and soldier who fought in the battle of Koniggrätz in 1866 and in the Franco-German war of 1870-1871, became a general in 1903 and retired in 1911. Recalled by the Kaiser at the outbreak of the First World War he and Ludendorff won decisive early victories over the Russians. In 1918 he supervised the retreat of the German armies and was a party to the secret understandings reached between Ebert and Scheidemann and the counterrevolutionary monarchist military leaders to crush the emerging workers’ revolution. On the death of Ebert in 1925 he was elected President of the Republic and in the last years of the Republic appeased the rise of Hitler and several times invoked emergency powers to rule by decree and effectively strengthened the power of the right. For the monarchists he was regarded as something of a regent.
9. Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1883-1967), Australian bourgeois politician educated at Cambridge. Entered the Australian parliament in 1918 and was Prime Minister 1923-1929. In 1925 his government took repressive measures against a wave of labour unrest throughout Australia.
10. Artur Crispien (1875-1946), German Social Democrat who became a leading member of the Independent Social-Democratic Party. Together with Haase he enjoyed during 1918-1920 considerable following in the German working class. Attended the Second World Congress of the Comintern in 1920 and took part in negotiations on affiliating the independents but was himself opposed to affiliation along with Dittman, Hilferding, Kautsky. An intractable centrist, he ended up back with the reformists after the rump of the Independents re-joined the Social-Democrats in 1922.
11. Rudolf Hilferding (1878-1941), German Social-Democrat who wrote a number of books on economics and politics and, supporting Kautsky’s middle-of-the-road attitude to the imperialist war, became a member of the Independents. In 1918-1920 he attempted to devise elaborate constitutional schemes representing a compromise between parliamentarism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. When the Independents split at Halle in 1920 over the attitude to the Communist Party he led the right wing and in 1922 became leader of the re-amalgamated Social-Democrats. In 1923 despite his previous opposition to participation in bourgeois governments he became Minister of Finance in Stresemann’s “Grand Coalition” of Liberals, the Catholic Centre, Democrats and Social-Democrats. Died in obscurity. [This final comment is not strictly true. After the Nazis came to power in 1933 Hilferding went into exile and was a leading member of the SPD in exile. He was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in 1941 and died in prison of injuries suffered while being tortured by his captors. – Note by TIA]
12. This refers to the reformist or “yellow” International Federation of Trade Unions re-established in 1919 at Amsterdam. It comprised trade union federations of European countries for the most part dominated by reformist and centrist socialist parties and also the British Trades Union Congress. Trade unions controlled by or sympathetic to parties affiliated to the Communist International formed the Red International of Unions.
13. The Scarborough Congress of September 1925 marked die high point of a “left wing interlude” at the TUC. Its President was left-winger Alonzo Swales of the Engineers and its policies included general support for socialism and a call for more power for the General Council. However, there was no discussion of how the former policy could be achieved or how the latter could be made to support the interests of the workers or resolve the inevitable confrontation in the coal industry that came in the following May. With extreme right wingers like Jimmie Thomas back on the General Council and Arthur Pugh in the Presidency there was no serious prospect that the Congress could lead a struggle against the employers or the state.
14. Ernest Johns, writing in the issue of 5th September, 1925.
15. Newspaper run by George Lansbury as an alternative to the Daily Herald which was now entirely under the control of the right wing. It appeared in 1925-6 and reflected generally the policies of the “left” union leaders in the TUC and an incoherent but largely undirected disillusionment following the failure of the 1924 Labour Government.
16. M.P. Tomsky (1880-1936) joined the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party in 1904. Bolshevik and Chairman of the Central Council of Trade Unions from 1919 to 1928 when he was expelled as a member of the Right Opposition. Committed suicide after being accused in the 1936 Moscow Trial.
Last updated on: 2.7.2007