It is forty years since the anonymous publication of a duplicated journal, The Communist, made it known that an organized opposition existed inside the British Communist Party.
It called itself the British Section of the Left Opposition, a grand title for a group of less than a dozen people; and introduced itself in a front page article by saying:
The Communist International is unable to gain the leadership of the world proletariat. It is – at this critical moment – unable, unready and unfit to lead the world revolution, and there is no possible alternative. The Left Opposition – led by Comrade Trotsky – is fighting to win back the CI to its task of leading the world revolution; the British group begins its work by the issue of this bulletin. 
Because of the heightening crisis in Germany, most of that first number was given over to Leon Trotsky’s Germany, the Key to the International Situation which, written several months before, had since become even more pointed and relevant with its warning of looming disaster for the workers’ movement in Germany, and ultimately in all Europe, unless Communist policies were changed in time.
That was in May 1932. At a specially summoned aggregate meeting of London CPers in July, accumulating criticism of the party leadership boiled over. The German question was one of several contentious issues raised, and there, in a conversation with Harry Pollitt, Stewart Purkis identified himself with Trotsky’s views. On 27 July, Purkis wrote the letter to Pollitt: ‘You have asked a straight question: you have a straight answer. You have asked me how far I go with The Communist, I go with it all the way,’  – that was to bring, a few weeks later, his and Bill Williams’ expulsion from the party.
Before they were thrown out, however, the party had acted against others, on matters not connected directly with The Communist. On 17 August Harry Wicks and Reg Groves  were expelled, Henry Sara ‘suspended’ and the Balham Group to which they belonged ‘liquidated’, accused of having ‘held views fundamentally opposed to the policy of the Communist Party for some time past’, and (unhappy formulation!) of having operated ‘its own anti-working class line instead of that of the party’. Some of the members, the statement went on, supported by ‘a majority in the Group, have deliberately engaged in anti-party factional activity in order to achieve this object. The leader of the Balham Group, R. Groves, now openly declares his absolute opposition to the united front line of the party, particularly in connection with the World Anti-War Congress.’ 
Members of the ‘liquidated’ group who desired ‘to retain their membership of the party’ were invited to a meeting ‘for comradely discussion’ with party officials on 19 August.  All but those expelled went along, but at this and other meetings and private interviews, the party functionaries were rebuffed. All wanted to stay in the party, but not at the price demanded – a stifling of discussion and a shuffling surrender to a leadership bent on the promotion of false policies.
The passing over of the Balham Group members, together with Hugo Dewar of Tooting CP Group, gave the British Section a small but active membership in South West London, and one with a base in the local working class movement. So long ago, so small an event, worth at most a line or two in the chronicles of our left movements – it is not surprising, then, that little has been written on it, or that what has, should have been either ill or inadequately informed. Some have seen it as prompted almost entirely by changes in Russian Communist and Communist International policies, by the onslaught between 1928 and 1932 on ‘right deviationists’ and ‘conciliators’, and by the Comintern’s criticism of the British party leadership at the World Congress of 1928 and in a series of subsequent resolutions.  Others have seen it as the almost accidental outcome of inner-party discussions on trade union policy, with the expelled malcontents being driven into the Left Opposition; or as an outbreak of ‘Left Sectarianism’; or as a pioneering episode in the story of British Trotskyism.
Segments of truth can be found in all these views. Our criticisms were inevitably couched in the formulae of Comintern resolutions and party textbooks; the Balham Group’s policy challenges and earlier critical essays might easily have been smothered, and the group might have perished in the dark but for the Comintern’s sustained attack upon the British party’s leadership; and our own little contentions might have been washed away in the storm of official controversy, but for events in Spain and Germany in 1930 – 32 which together with the changes taking place in the British party, convinced us in the end that the disarray of the British party was no mere national peculiarity but endemic to the Comintern and its controller, the Russian party. True, we were woefully ignorant, particularly about the situation in Russia, and as we struggled for enlightenment and understanding and clarity, some of us found help in the writings of Trotsky and, to a lesser extent, in the periodicals published by the American Left Opposition.
All this conceded, there remains an unexplained residue – a group that went on to expulsion and ostracism, and to political ex-communication. To explain this it may help to say something about the people involved, and their relationships, to make some personal observations, and to start the story back in 1925. On ‘Red Friday’, on the eve of a lock-out of a million miners for rejecting lower pay and longer hours, rail and road transport unions placed on movements of coal an embargo that compelled hasty intervention by an unprepared Tory government. The government paid a subsidy to keep the pits open on the old terms until a Royal Commission had reported – giving the Tories time to make preparations for battle with the unions.
As the months passed, the conviction grew among socialists, trade unionists, labour folk, that only a general strike could prevent a renewal of the attack by government and employers on the miners, and then, on the rest of us.
It was soon after Red Friday that, at a crowded discussion meeting in John Groser’s little back and front living rooms in Teviot Street, Poplar, I first met Stewart Purkis, Billy Williams and Bert Field, all three of them active in the Clearing House branch of the Railway Clerks’ Association, the union’s biggest, supposedly most reactionary branch, and active to such effect that, in May 1926, to the amazement of the union and the outraged indignation of the railway companies, a majority of branch members came out on strike in support of the miners, and held the line unbroken to the muddled, hopeless end of the strike.
Stewart: forty, a socialist from 1904, an early enthusiast for Guild Socialism and various rebel causes, incisive, thorough in study and argument, bubbling with humour, yet in deadly earnest about the socialism which he lived as well as preached; Billy: – in his mid-twenties, son of a Quaker-agnostic-building-worker-socialist-Welsh father, an omniverous reader, hard hitting in debate and in serious conversation, a good mixer but intolerant of the pompous, the slothful and the shoddy; and Bert Field: forty, affable, inarticulate, using his pipe to cover retreat from the more complicated controversies, and probably wiser than any of us. Such company, such mentors, and amid such stirring events, were exhilarating indeed to a raw but enthusiastic seventeen-year-old socialist like myself, and the friendships began then lasted for life.
As government preparations and intentions grew more pronounced, newspapers more abusive about the miners, and as Communist Party leaders were arrested and sent to prison, street meetings multiplied, arguments became more serious in the workshop; and in the trade union branch, we read, and talked after the meetings about events and books. One of the books was Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? published in 1925, an analysis of Britain’s decline, and an argument on the need for political revolutions as a necessary preliminary to the social organisation of production and distribution, and of the certainty of capitalist resistance to such a revolution. At a time when open conflict between government and unions seemed certain, Trotsky’s book had a considerable effect on us. We did not know, of course, that the book was, in Trotsky’s own words, directed at the ‘official conception’ of the Comintern leadership with its hopes of ‘an evolution to the left by the British General Council (TUC) and the painless penetration of Communism into the British Labour Party’. Nor did we suspect, then, that R. Palme Dutt’s defence of the book against labour and socialist critics was aimed also at the majority of the British Communist Party’s leaders who saw the party as a militant wing of the reformist labour movement, not as an independent alternative to it.
We read also Trotsky’s The Lessons of October (again unaware of controversies inside the Russian party, or that – as Harry Wicks has recently reminded us – there was some resistance among London communists to a blanket condemnation of the Russian oppositionists unheard). Trotsky’s account of the role of Soviets and party in the insurrection, his demonstration that Bolshevism was not a theory but also ‘a revolutionary system for teaching insurrection to the proletariat’; and his theme that ‘The proletarian revolution cannot win if there is no party, or without the help of the party, or with a substitute for a party ... The task of the Communist Party is to seize power and to transform society’  was argued over, but not yet accepted by us. There was much to find out about Marxism and the communism of Lenin, and some enlightening experiences to live through and observe before we came to see that a revolutionary party was needed.
The General Strike multiplied the arguments for such a party. Watching, with thousands of other workers, the convoys of food lorries and armoured cars rumbling out of the docks and along the Commercial Road; witnessing on the day of the TUC’s abject surrender, brutal police attacks on a peaceful Poplar meeting and on scores of poor men’s homes; the triumph displayed that day by our rulers and their toadies, and the ferocity of the employers’ counter offensive – checked by a spontaneous rally of the strikers – it certainly seemed unlikely that the capitalists would allow power to pass from their hands without a struggle involving force. If so, a party of self-sacrificing, trained revolutionaries would be needed to prepare, guide and sustain the struggle for proletarian dictatorship – a Blanquist phrase coined when the proletariat was in a minority, but understood by us and most ordinary socialist and communist workers as meaning in contemporary conditions a government of the workers, a majority; and not, as it was to become in Russia, the dictatorship of a clique, ruling through a powerful bureaucracy.
The betrayal of the General Strike and the abandonment by the Labour leaders of the miners in the anguished months that followed, produced widespread disillusionment, slumped union membership, and a million and a half unemployed; the drop in wages, vengeful anti-union legislation by the Tory government drove the whole movement into the doldrums. Union leaders conferred with employers to secure ‘rationalization’ of industry – speed-up, more production by fewer workers, more unemployment - and an imposed industrial peace, with pay cuts and longer hours in the basic industries to make Britain’s exports more ‘competitive’, until the capitalists of other lands did the same, and the whole process began all over again, a competition in becoming poorer and more wretched.
With all this, and having learned and studied and argued a way through to a conviction that the communists alone were trying to build a revolutionary party, Stewart Purkis, Billy Williams and I joined the party. Only the phlegmatic Bert Field remained outside, though he stayed a close friend and comrade, supporting Stewart Purkis and Billy Williams in union struggles, yet remaining a social democrat of the truest sort, a guild socialist, a militant, a sturdy witness to his beliefs. Curiously, in view of later events, soon after we joined, the party held a series of local members’ meetings, addressed by party officials at which members were invited to approve the ‘condemnation’ of the Russian Left Opposition by the Russian Communist Party and Comintern. Some material by the Opposition was available, wedged in between massive corrective and condemnatory material; the issues involved included Russian economic policy, and the Comintern’s policy in China. Purkis and Williams had pored hard and long over the Russian economic material, and at the St Pancras party meeting, unconvinced by the official case, abstained on this, or voted against. At the West London area meeting, I abstained on Russian economic policy and other matters, and voted against the official resolution on the Chinese question.
That no one rebuked us, or indeed showed any surprise or concern over our attitude would have been evidence to a Russian communist of the British party’s backwardness. At this time, differences of opinion up to the deciding vote was what most party members took for granted, and most of us assumed that it was so in Russia. Before long, such doubts and abstentions let alone votes against, would become vilest heresy, bring expulsion, denunciation, victimisation – and in Russia imprisonment and execution.
Things were far from well in the British party. Membership, which had doubled during 1926, had halved in 1927. Sales of party periodicals and pamphlets fell, and went on falling. Policy was still directed at hopeful reform of the official movement, and the party still called for ‘all power to the TUC General Council’, the selfsame General Council that had surrendered abjectly in May 1926 and that had abandoned the miners in the long lockout that had followed.
Despite rebuffs, the party sought affiliation to the Labour Party, which was expelling communists from individual membership, beginning to bar them as delegates from trade unions to constituency Labour Party management committees and national conferences, and expelling any local parties that refused to expel or bar communists. Some twenty-four of these parties or sections of parties, had, by 1927, been organized in the National Left Wing Movement, a confusing masquerade which led to many communists giving time and energy needed by their own party to sustain the ‘original’ local Labour Party in elections and other activities against the more recently established ‘official Labour Party’. The National Left Wing Movement was, like so many of the auxiliaries, a substitute for the party, not an extension of it.
The party was still calling for ‘a Labour government’, adding such phrases as ‘but make it fight’; or demanding, as did the 7th Plenum of the Comintern (ECCI), a ‘real Labour government’.  Even as late as January 1928, the adroit, plausible, wily Andrew Rothstein, who may have already received hints of sharp changes in Russian and Comintern policy when the fateful 9th Plenum was assembling, was too deeply embedded in the routine of office and the old policy to grasp the full import of what was happening. He could be found calling on the one hand for ‘a sharpening of the fight against reformism’ and on the other for ‘a real change of leadership’ in the Labour Party. He urged the National Left Wing Movement to replace a score or so reformist parliamentary candidates by ‘honest revolutionary fighters’, members of the Labour Party of course, who would run as Labour candidates in the elections’.  The decisions of the 9th Plenum were ‘unanimously endorsed’ by the British party’s Political Bureau and Central Committee. ‘The 9th Plenum’ said Tom Bell, in that convoluted phraseology which owed as much to his being a Scot as to the perils of political life in the Comintern, ‘drew attention to the tendency towards a definite merging of the trade union organizations and the labour bureaucracy with the State apparatus ... It was necessary for the party to adopt a sharper tactic towards the Labour Party and the trade union leaders. This was the tactic of “class against class”.’ 
According to Bell, the party’s 10th Congress at Bermondsey in January 1929, ‘unreservedly adopted the new line’. But Bell was not only a party elder, and so one of those very much responsible for the ‘old line’, he was also – as the British party’s representative at the Comintern – visiting other national sections, chiding them as ‘right deviationists’, that is, as followers of that very same ‘old line’. He was also, according to Allen Hutt, ‘Among the majority of those who were then the principal party leaders, men who had come over from the previously existing Socialist groupings and bore strong marks of sectarian dogmatism in their outlook’, who showed ‘a strange hesitancy in appreciating the need for the party now to assert its full independence and to change its tactics and approach accordingly’.
‘And so’, Hutt goes on, ‘from the end of 1927 there was waged for two years the keenest battle of ideas the party had so far known around the question of its “new line”. This new line sought to prescribe a new independence for the Communist Party both in political and economic struggles ... it represented a necessary break with the past. As such it was stubbornly resisted by the dominant section of the party leadership... Thorough-going changes in the leadership were obviously necessary if the party was not to stagnate. These were not finally achieved till the party’s congress held at Leeds in December, 1929.’ 
As will be seen, the necessary changes were not achieved at Leeds; but Hutt, a lively and able critic, was one of the dozen or so potential candidates for party leadership invited to Moscow for a year’s course at the Lenin School. I was the only one who refused to go, believing that the struggle in the British party was far from ended. As with most of those who went, Hutt’s critical faculty atrophied rapidly, and he was to serve the Stalin-ized party faithfully through all the policy changes, through all the Stalin-worship, party purges, imprisonments, trials and executions. His account omits much, particularly the extent to which the Comintern dictated the terms of discussion and outcome, but it does not exaggerate the discontent among the members in 1929.
It was early in 1929 that Henry Sara first became associated with the three of us and with others in our circle, which included my wife Daisy, Steve Dowdall, a tiler-bricklayer and founder member of the party, his wife Nell, and her sister Daisy, both of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union, and active members of the party since mid-1926.
Living in North London, Henry Sara soon became, like myself, a frequent caller at the Express Dairy teashop close to Euston station, where Stewart and Billy lunched each day on bread, cheese and coffee, and where books, politics and party affairs were talked about, often irreverently and sometimes hilariously. Henry, tall, strong of build, with eloquent, resonant voice, and a commanding platform manner, incisive, informed in debate and discussion, brought much to us in the way of knowledge of Marxism, socialist theory and labour history. His critical faculty had been toughened by early associations with anarchist ideas and the stricter industrial unionism groups; by his experiences during the 1914 – 18 war, when after a courageous anti-militarist campaign of public meetings he was arrested and conscripted into the army. He refused to obey orders or wear a uniform, was maltreated and finally sent to prison. A popular outdoor orator in Finsbury Park and elsewhere before, during and after the war, and a skilful lecturer at socialist and secularist halls all over the country, he had hesitated to join the Communist Party at the time of its foundation, knowing as he did most of its leading personalities from pre-war days. But a visit to Russia, where the revolution was still in rags and struggling to survive, decided him, though the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising caused him some uneasiness, and was perhaps one reason why he avoided being drawn into the inner circles of the party leadership.
By now, Stewart Purkis and I were on the London District Committee, and for most of 1929 I was its assistant organizer. The London District Committee office adjoined that of the almost non-existent Young Communist League, from which William Rust, who had assumed the role of Comintern spokesman, aided by the more likeable Walter Tapsell, conducted a campaign against the old leadership and for his own elevation to power.
As the General Election of 1929 approached, the party leadership, committed to the slogans of ‘Class Against Class’ and ‘A Revolutionary Workers’ Government’, was again shaken by controversy. In March five members of the Central Committee voted that where no Communist candidates were running, the workers should be advised to vote Labour. In the election, twenty-five party candidates polled 50,644 votes, most of them faring miserably. Only in a few constituencies did the vote reach four figures. Labour, with over eight million voters and 288 seats, took office, with Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister.
A whole series of factors re-stimulated criticism of the leadership: the scanty vote, a membership fall from 10,000 in 1926 to some 3,500 in 1929, periodicals kept alive and functionaries paid only by Comintern subsidies; a diminished but devoted band of members who by sheer persistence and by appearing in many places, on many occasions, under many titles and banners, alone made the party seem larger and more important than it was. There were demands for a special conference. The attack on the resolution drawn up by the Central Committee, was led by the London, Tyneside and – to a lesser extent – Manchester, District Committees. The Tynesiders, led by Maurice Ferguson, were rabidly ‘Comintern line’ men;  the London District was less so, though its resolution, compiled at long and wearying committee meetings, often prodded into angry argument by interjections, expostulations and tirades from attending representatives of the Political Bureau, tended to keep to accepted phrases and formulations. The London resolution, indeed, showed a marked independence of approach over a matter on which the Comintern and Russian leaders were most sensitive. The Central Committee resolution said, ‘We completely endorse the measures that have been taken by the ECCI (Comintern) in the struggles against the Right Wingers and the Conciliators in its own ranks and in the parties...’ London District Committee dissented, saying, ‘This presupposes that the party as a whole has a fair knowledge of the inner-party situations of these sections. This information the party has not got and for the party to understand this statement it must have in its possession more complete information’. London’s resolution was approved at an aggregate meeting of London members, at which Rothstein and ‘Jock’ Wilson, strident and politically uncouth, angered the membership by their abuse of the district committee and by a blatantly dishonest defence of the majority party leadership.
The 10th Plenum of the ECCI condemned the British party leadership in language that was to become depressingly familiar in subsequent years. It called on the party to ‘intensify the fight against Social Democracy, which is the chief support of capitalism’, to wage ‘an energetic struggle against the “left” wing of Social Democracy’, to ‘eradicate from its (own) ranks all remnants of Right opportunist deviations’. Noting that ‘conciliation, which appeared as cowardly opportunism, screening avowed liquidationism, has recently slipped over to the Right Wing position ...’, the Plenum demanded ‘that the conciliators openly and emphatically disassociate themselves from the Right deviators, conduct an active fight... against the Right deviation ... Submit implicitly to all decisions of the Comintern and its sections, and actively carry them out. Failure will place the culprits outside the ranks of the Communist International.’ 
Reading this uneasily, we saw the Central Committee, including those so splenetic against London and other critical Districts, ‘endorse’ Comintern decisions and commands, and ‘welcome’(!) the critical resolutions of London, Newcastle and Manchester, saying, ‘The party membership has been in advance of the leadership in appreciating the new situation and desiring the more energetic carrying through of the new line.  We watched critics and criticised alike scurrying to obey and conform to the latest commands, and leading Central Committee members twisting themselves into most abject postures to placate the Comintern and retain their posts. We grew less and less sure in our minds that the Comintern’s extending control and direction of policy and people was a good thing.
But, on the hopeful side, was the critical, determined mood of the members, the possibility that a new leadership would emerge from the discussion, and from the coming party congress. Britain’s first communist daily paper, the Daily Worker, was promised for 1 January 1930. Discontent with the Labour government which was retreating from even modest plans to reduce unemployment, was growing among the workers. And, though bankers, economists and politicians dispensed optimistic forecasts for the coming year, already there were cracks on the surface of optimism and complacency. The first signs were detectable of what was to be world capitalism’s most serious economic crisis.
For the third time in a decade, a potentially revolutionary situation was on its way. Would there this time be a truly revolutionary party to keep the rendezvous?
On the eve of the party congress, R Palme Dutt wrote, privately, of the congress:
The supreme need is that the positive lead from all contributing must be strong. It is necessary to start one’s thinking out of the present position of the party in the working class, of the line of advance of the party, of the consequent role of the Congress in the total political situation and in the historical development of the British working class ...
The primary problem and task for us in relation to the economic struggle is, first, to fight the way forward for the independent action of the masses, and lead it, and second, to develop the political character of the gathering economic struggles, to develop the consciousness of the masses through them for further struggle and advance to a new plane. 
Perhaps, after all, out of bitter argument and controversy, would come a renewal of revolutionary purpose and the first useful steps to the creation of that party to which all of us were committed.
So – it was heigh-ho for Leeds, and that special congress, where, if all went well, faded reformist policies would be replaced by bright new revolutionary ones, and where old leaders were to be put down, and new ones raised up.
1. The Communist, no.l, May 1932, published anonymously.
2. Issued cyclostyled as An Open Letter to Harry Pollitt after the Balham expulsions, 1932.
3. Letter to Reg Groves from the London District Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (cvco), 17 August 1932.
4. London District Party Committee, CPGB, circular to All Members of the Balham Group, 17 August 1932.
6. For a useful digest of Russian-Comintern structural and policy changes see Hugo Dewar, Communist Parties, in Marxism, Communism and Western Society. A Comparative Encyclopaedia, Germany 1971, pp.104-12.
7. Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October, translated by Susan Lawrence and I. Olshan, London 1925, pp.75, 80.
8. CPGB, The Ninth Congress, with resolutions of the 7th and 8th Plenums of the ECCI (on Britain), London 1927.
9. Labour Monthly, January 1928, pp.44-48.
10. Tom Bell, The British Communist Party, London 1937, pp.125, 135.
11. Allen Hutt, The Post-War History of the British Working Class, London 1937, pp.19293. See also, Hutt’s review of Bell’s book in Labour Monthly, June 1937, pp.382-86. Dewar has documented a refutation of Hutt’s opinions in Communism in Great Britain, pp.95-97, as yet unpublished.
12. Tyneside District Party Committee, CPGB, Communist Review, October 1929, pp.568-69.
13. London District Party Committee resolution, Communist Review, November 1929, pp.610-18.
14. 10th Plenum ECCI, The World Situation and Economic Struggle, London n.d., pp.17, 18. See also, H. Pollitt, 10th Plenum Lessons, Communist Review, October 1929, pp.560-67.
15. Tasks of the CPGB. Statement of the Central Committee, Communist Review, September 1929, p.520.
16. Letter to R. Groves, 27 November 1929.
Last updated on 27.12.2002