Reg Groves


The Balham Group


Chapter 2


Expectation was high among delegates assembled on 30 November 1929, at Leeds, for the CPGB’s eleventh congress. And when they departed three days later, the mood was hopeful among most. Under sustained attack, led by the district committee members of London, Newcastle and Manchester, the new policies appeared to have been adopted fully. Many of the leaders most associated with the ‘old line’ had been removed from positions of importance – only twelve of the old Central Committee remained, and twenty-three new ones had been added. [17]

Yet it was a dusty triumph. Noisy and passionate debates took place in the hall, but the real decisions were made behind the scenes. The new leadership was chosen from above, not elected from below. A ‘recommended’ panel was substituted for normally elected members; there were to be no more ‘social-democratic methods of election’; the new Central Committee members were chosen ‘for practical reasons, and their understanding of the present period, their experience in the conduct of class battles, and their capacity for carrying out the political tasks of the party’, making possible ‘the more energetic fulfilment of the obligations that are imposed on our party as a section of the Communist International’, [18] or, as Wally Tapsell put it more succinctly, ‘a leadership which would strive to carry out the line of the Comintern’. [19]

Personal recollections of the congress have been blurred by time, and its documents tell little. Re-read, they bring only a weariness of spirit, an incredulity that these dry papers, containing only falsehoods and false-seeming, empty of disinterested argument, creative thought and humanity, could have been taken seriously by so many bright and brave souls among the small and mostly dedicated membership.

A few vivid impressions remain of the congress itself – a recollection of Wal Hannington and Arthur Horner, the party’s only genuine mass leaders, in the shadows as being of the right, yet vigorous and defiant in explanation of their views; a perspiring, brow-mopping Bob Lovell, of the almost non-existent British section of the International Class War Prisoners’ Aid, making vituperative attacks on the left, as he defended the lurid stunts and provocative clashes with the police by which he secured newspaper headlines and approval and continued support from his Moscow employers.

Distinct, too, is recollection of the resentful abasement of some of the ‘old line’ leaders as they strove to hold their places by abject and dishonourable ‘confession’; of Harry Pollitt, acknowledged leader of the party, being allowed to state his case for postponement of Daily Worker publication to 1 May, – without oratorial embellishments lest he carry the delegates with him – and then, afterwards, dutifully ‘confessing’ his error in having advocated such a proposition; of knots of animated delegates arguing in the corridors; of Pollitt taking Stewart Purkis aside and attempting to coax him into tempering his opposition, and Stewart, unruffled and courteous, refusing.

And, distinct in the memory, yet puzzling, the strange little meeting almost conspiratorially arranged, between some London delegates, and the Comintern representative, Walter Ulbricht of Germany.

We stood at one end of the room, the impassive, aloof Ulbricht at the other. Presently, we were beckoned before the presence. Ulbricht spoke in German, an interpreter passed his words on to us. We learned with surprise that all the great man wanted was an assurance that London members’ objections to Johnny Campbell remaining in commanding party positions were political objections not personal ones. It was left to Stewart Purkis to reply for us, and he assured the interpreter that we all had the greatest respect and affection for Campbell, but felt that he was too deeply embedded in the old ways and policies to perform adequately where the new policies were concerned. The interpreter, baffled by the amiability shown and the jargon-free vocabulary, juggled the words in the air for a moment before passing them to Ulbricht in more formal terms. The great man nodded at us, and faded from the scene. The interview was over.

We were uneasy about the way things had gone at Leeds, but reluctant to examine the full implications. Chiefly, we shied away from the matter of growing Russian party control over the international movement, and from attempting to estimate what might be happening in Russia itself. We told ourselves that Russia, a backward country, devastated by war, civil war and wars of intervention, hampered by blockade and capitalist hostility, was now engaged in a gigantic programme of industrialization. Some measure of dictatorship was still required. Faults of omission and commission were due to these circumstances. Adverse reports on conditions in Russia came almost entirely from malignant and blatantly untruthful capitalist-owned newspapers and politicians, the enemies of revolution, socialism and the working peoples. How could we then give credence to criticisms of Russia?

Pushing aside our uncertainties, we threw ourselves into our party activities. In struggle and action differences would be resolved, errors on all our parts corrected, experience and understanding enlarged.

The Daily Worker duly appeared on 1 January 1930, edited by William Rust, in itself a guarantee that it would be drab and colourless, and inhibited from experiment and adventure by fear of deviation. A series of wholesalers’ boycotts put a considerable burden on the small, overworked membership, who in many places had to meet late-night or early-morning trains, collect and distribute to local newsagents bundles of the paper. A declaration of war on ‘capitalist sport’ by the Comintern compelled the dropping of football, cricket and racing reports and ‘tips’; and as most workers could afford but one daily newspaper, down came the already sadly drooping sales.

When editorial board and party leadership inclined to blame the members for the falling sales, there were exasperated protests. Some came from members of the Battersea local; and these discussions, and talks between Stewart Purkis, Billy Williams and myself, led to a letter of some length being sent by me to the party secretariat on 26 February, discussing the role of a daily paper in the workers’ struggle, and suggesting among other things reporting in depth of major or unusually important industrial conflicts, bringing background, industry and the people involved to life for the workers everywhere.‘ [20] These and other suggestions were ignored or brushed aside.

Yet, by June 1930, Rust himself was complaining:

‘The whole party must face the fact that just as the party membership is small and stagnant, so is the circulation of the Daily Worker very low and unsatisfactory. The basic reason for the still unsatisfactory party situation is the mistakes of the leadership, which failed to mobilize the membership for a systematic and daily struggle against opportunism.’

The Daily Worker should be used for a ‘ruthless war against opportunism in practice, against right-wing passivity and left sectarianism ...’ [21] So the Daily Worker was not primarily a paper for working people but an instrument for imposing Moscow-directed policies on the British party!

In early March I offered to write voluntarily a column called A Worker’s Notebook, over the pseudonym ‘Plowman’ and the offer was accepted. [22] I wrote it every day, helped out only by an occasional paragraph from Stewart Purkis, and took it each morning from South-West London to Tabernacle Street, using a sixpenny all-day tram ticket. The column went its troubled way until 30 May when, because of continual editorial suppression and alteration, I quit. Though most of the political differences that flared up were argued out in correspondence [23], the curious will find in published material some evidence of the differences that arose.‘ [24]

Two paragraphs in the Notebook may be noted as indicative of our critical views at the time. One referred to an article by Bukharin that compared, with superb irony undetected by the party leaders, the disciplines of Jesuit and Communist. In commending the article to Daily Worker readers, the Notebook quoted a passage describing the Jesuit theory of subordination:

‘Every member of the order must submit to his superior, “like a corpse which can be turned in any direction; like a stick which submits to every movement; like a lump of wax which can be made to change its shape and to stretch in any direction”.’ [25]

That we saw in this an illusion to the discipline being imposed on Russian party and Comintern sections, suggests that our eyes were being opened to the real situation of the revolutionary movement.

Nearer home, and of more immediate concern to us, was another item commended in the Notebook – Freda Utley’s review of the two volumes of Lenin’s works, The Iskra Period. Freda, whom we first met and became friendly with when she fought Westminster as a Communist candidate in the 1928 London County Council elections, drew attention to Lenin’s attacks on the ‘economists’ – described by him as those that ‘bow down before spontaneity, gaze with awe upon the posteriors of the Russian proletariat, and think it sufficient in the party press merely to reflect the drab day to day struggle, so that the workers read the paper once or twice and then say “awfully dull”.’ Freda went on, ‘who can deny that “economism” is strong in our ranks?... But, comrades, it is not enough to repeat the slogans “Down with the social-fascist Labour Government” and “A revolutionary workers’ government”, and feel that in so doing you have fulfilled the task of raising the political consciousness of the workers.’ [26]

Freda Utley’s world-wide researches into the textile industry had led to her concern over party propaganda and activities among the Lancashire cotton workers. Local and industry-wide resistance to reorganization, speed-up, lower pay and mass unemployment was necessary – but was it not the party’s duty to make plain to the workers that the outdated British capitalist textile industry, facing growing competition from the cheap-labour, highly modernized textile industries of the East, would be driven inexorably to continuous reductions in pay and employment? And that the workers had to choose between going along with the employers in this desperate and ultimately ineffectual course to ‘keep the industry competitive’, or of taking the way of resistance to worsening conditions – socialist revolution, socialist internationalism and social ownership? [27]

To communists it was axiomatic that in Britain’s older and major industries, capitalism could survive only by the lowering of living standards at home and the exploitation of colonial peoples and resources abroad. Stewart Purkis did for the railways what Freda Utley had done for textiles, and analyzed the situation and prospects for the railway workers under capitalism. The railway companies’ decline was a crisis of capitalism, and ‘inside capitalism, all industries will increasingly prove unable to maintain both wages and profits.... That every railwayman may master this basic fact should be the main political concern of the revolutionary who participates in the railway struggle.’ [28] The party’s political bureau denounced Utley and Purkis for ‘attacking the leadership that has a correct political line and is also paying considerable attention to improving the understanding of the whole party.’ [29] If the critical formulations here were not completely adequate, arising as they did from examinations of particular industries, yet the issue underlying the argument was a vital one, for it concerned the reciprocal relations between the battles of the hour and the revolutionary uprising which was the party’s supposed aim, indeed, the reason for its existence. How far we were as a party from understanding this reciprocity was shown during the dispute in the woollen industry in 1930.

Here were assembled all the essential elements in the revolutionary argument – a declining major industry, already affected by falling wages and employment; employers pressing for further wage reductions; a vigorous rejection of the cuts by the workers; and intervention in the dispute by the Labour government, which took the form of a supposedly impartial inquiry and which inevitably reported in favour of wage reductions. Despite faintheartedness on the part of officials of some of the unions involved, the workers voted down the recommended cuts, and were locked out.

Sent by the party to the West Riding for a week of outdoor meetings; walking the lamplit, cobbled streets of Dewsbury and Batley; watching the trams climbing the streets between rows and rows of little stone houses, gaunt silent mills and forests of smokeless chimneys; listening to the talk of locked-out men and women, and of the older men whose fathers or grandfathers had been Chartists, or radicals and socialists of the early days, it was impossible not to be reminded again of what the Daily Worker could have been – what might have been done here, in the lockout, given the character and quality of the people, their long traditions of struggle. Riches indeed with which to give life and colour to the presentation of the revolutionary cause.

As it was, the Daily Worker sloganized this struggle as it sloganized all struggles, large or small, making it faceless and drab. To anyone on the spot, the slogans appeared to have nothing whatever to do with the course of events, nor did they seem to have any meaning for those directly engaged in the battle. In the Bradford area the party’s main work, except for a parade of outdoor meetings, was the distribution of relief to locked-out men and women in need. This was organized by Isobel Brown, on behalf of the Moscow-controlled and financed Workers’ International Relief, one of the many party front organizations. A nonrepresentative, nebulous ‘action committee’ met in the building, and there also Ernie Brown, Isobel’s husband, addressed the workers who came to the centre. The political content of his speeches was obscure – his speciality seemed to be ‘cheerin’ t’lads oop’, with a comedy style reminiscent of his native Lancashire. It was obvious that the party had no influence on the course or outcome of the battle, nor was it attracting to its ranks the more thoughtful workers.

Returning to London when the week ended, I reported to Harry Pollitt. He said nothing, asked me for a written report, and handed me a week’s pay, which I refused. Nothing came of the written report; and, after several weeks of unbroken solidarity, the unions decided to negotiate separate settlements and the workers returned to work. At a West Riding by-election held soon afterwards, the Labour vote fell drastically, the Tory was elected, and a Communist candidate polled 700 votes.

So brief a chronicle as this, compressing events as it must, necessarily emphasizes disproportionately our opposition to the party’s leadership, as though this occupied all our waking thoughts and actions. It didn’t. Our time was taken almost exclusively by our party work – the frequent parades and gatherings under a variety of banners; the sale of party papers; union branch, party group, committee and fraction meetings; as well as, for some, a deal of speaking, lecturing and writing. Opposition to aspects of party policies grew out of our party work and experience, and was intended as a contribution to the discussion and formulation of policy. We were not an organized group but close friends who talked things over, and who individually expressed our views openly to our party comrades.

Stewart Purkis, expelled from his union in 1929 for his party activities, but still strongly supported and respected by his fellow workers, edited, with Billy Williams, a lively cyclostyled paper, The Jogger; and, in collaboration with some Idris workers at the Camden Town factory, the Idris Ginger which, with its vigorous presentation of the workers’ grievances and its brief, simple exposition in each number of Marxian economics and communist policy, came to be regarded as a model of what a factory paper should be. Both Purkis and Williams were active in the St Pancras local, on various London District Committee sub-committees, and busy among railway militants in the NUR and ASLEF.

Steve and Nell Dowdall, and my wife Daisy and I, were active in the South-West London local, busy in various Battersea groups, finally being settled in the Nine Elms rail group, and responsible for the sale at the rail depot of the cyclostyled Nine Elms Signal, though almost all of us lived in Balham, and no one in the group worked on the railways, much less at Nine Elms.

It was towards the end of 1930 that Harry Wicks first became associated with us, having returned in August to his native Battersea, after three years at the Lenin School in Moscow. As a lad working on the railway, Harry had joined the Daily Herald League, which in 1921 went over almost entirely to the newly-founded Communist Party. Harry went with it, helped to form a Young Communist League (YCL) in Battersea; and took part in the production and distribution of the Nine Elms Spark and the Victoria Signal up to the time of the General Strike. Elected to the YCL executive in 1926, in the following year he was selected to be sent to the Latin School. Harry brought us much – he had witnessed episodes in the struggle in the Comintern and the Russian party between the increasingly powerful Stalin group and the Left Opposition, he knew of many international controversies and personalities – and he also knew Battersea, its radical traditions, and its active socialist and Communist Party workers. Harry Wicks was to join us as we renewed our criticisms of the leadership early in the year 1931.

Busy indeed was the life in those times of the Communist Party member, and we were as busy as any. But there were occasional summer afternoons at cricket, and some Saturday or Friday nights when we walked through the crowded New Cut market with its stalls, its loquacious stallholders and its roaring naphthalene flares, to the Waterloo Road and the Old Vic, queued and paid five pence and climbed the stairs to the gallery; and saw our Shakespeare staged by Harcourt Williams and spoken by a superb company closer to the original text, pace and style than any before or since. And as we came out under the stars, into the rain-washed streets, odd words sometimes lingered in the mind as strangely apt to our party activities. Like the sharp exchange from the first part of Henry IV, when Owen Glendower says:

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep”

and Hotspur retorts:

“Why, so can I, or so can any man:
But will they come when you do call them?”

Would they come, indeed? During 1930, the party leadership produced yet another ‘front’ organization behind which and in which the party could attempt – vainly – to hide itself and its political identity. This was the campaign for the ‘Workers’ Charter’ – the name was based on the People’s Charter of 1837. The Workers’ Charter began with six points, immediate demands for those at work and those unemployed: the demands grew to nine, then to fifteen points, but when, after nearly a year’s activity, a monster conference was held at Bermondsey on 12 April 1931, of the 316 organizations represented there, only sixty-eight union branches and seven co-op guilds could be called genuine, non-party organizations.’ [30]

The ballyhoo lasted a few more weeks; the spirits refused to come from the vasty deep or from anywhere else. By June, William Rust was writing: ‘United front work is practically non-existent, as is shown by the weakness of the Charter campaign: our slogans are far too general, and the Minority Movement tends to be a duplicate of the party. We have not yet succeeded in organizing the daily fight in a revolutionary manner; our revolutionary policy for the way out of the capitalist crisis remains abstract, and is mechanically presented.’ [31]

R.P. Dutt, too, found the Charter campaign unsatisfactory – it was liable to be ‘misunderstood as some kind of all-round programme of reforms, a kind of minimum programme to meet the crisis.’ This was not so. ‘The Charter cannot solve the crisis ... The Charter is not a programme in the sense of a programme of a party ... but simply “common ground” on the most immediate issues of the class struggle.’ But, went on Dutt, members, while fighting for these issues alongside non-party workers, should ‘spread the understanding of the revolutionary line of Communism which can alone conquer the crisis and bring final victory.’ [32]

Unfortunately, the freedom of thought and action required by a revolutionary party to change its points of emphasis and adapt to swiftly-moving events no longer existed. Initiative had been destroyed, improvization inhibited. Those attempting to stimulate discussion on the necessary reciprocity between immediate battles and the revolutionary uprising, between objective and subjective factors, had been denounced and silenced. Even Rust and Dutt had not confessed until a dissatisfied Comintern had demanded that the British party should produce results commensurate with the objective situation.

The party members could but go on as before. The programmes of immediate demands designed to deceive workers into an unsuspecting support of the party, deceived only the party membership. Such attempted deceptions and the continual and indiscriminate abuse of the ‘social-fascists’ of all ranks and opinions – an obligatory act if Comintern approval was to be ensured – made many socialist workers suspicious of the party; and the excessive attacks on the ‘left’ as the biggest political scoundrels of all made the situation worse. An assured, firmly-held independent view would have enabled a flexibility of tactics and relationships to be possible, and in a rapidly changing situation, such flexibility, allied to a firm revolutionary position, was vital if the party was to influence events. But the revolutionary certainty was not there – only the ‘immediate demands’.

For the economic storm blowing across the entire capitalist world was becoming a mighty tempest. By January 1931, out of an insured working population of 12.4 million Britain had 2,662,824 registered as unemployed. Many hundreds of thousands outside insurance were unemployed but unregistered, or working but part-time. Nearly a million were on poor relief.

As the numbers of unemployed rose, the Labour government, which had long abandoned its modest election programme of reforms, and which had almost angrily rejected plans to provide employment, now turned to the orthodox capitalist remedies for slump – massive economies in public spending at the expense of the social services; cuts in pay in public and private industries and services; drastic cuts in unemployment benefit, in the period of benefit and in eligibility for benefit.

Throughout the cheap compromises, and now through the period of ‘tough measures’, the large majority of Labour MPs supported the government, and turned savagely on the tiny group of Independent Labour Party (ILP) members in the Commons who spoke and voted against the government’s broken promises and failure to act on behalf of the unemployed. When the Mosley plan for providing work was rejected by the cabinet, the Labour MPs also voted the plan down by 202 votes to 29, and went on backing MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas, Henderson and the rest. When the Labour cabinet appointed, in February 1931, an ‘economies’ commission headed by Sir George May of the Prudential, only a score of Labour MPs voted against it, the rest voting for it; and Snowden’s April budget, which pointed the conditions for subsequent economies, received also the support of most Labour MPs.

The May committee reported, recommending massive economies in social services and other state expenditure; cuts in the pay of teachers, the armed forces and civil servants; and a reduction in unemployment benefit of 20 per cent. The Labour cabinet went along with two-thirds of the proposed cuts, was considering, and might well have agreed to, almost all of the rest, when there was an angry intervention by the general council of the ruc, expressing adamant opposition to nearly all the ‘economies’. [33] Even then, when a cabinet vote was taken on the one issue made crucial and decisive as a condition of support by British, French and American bankers, and by the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative Parties in the Commons, that of the cut in unemployment benefit, twelve cabinet ministers voted for the cut, and only eight voted against.

Prime Minister MacDonald went to Buckingham palace to resign – or, at least, that was the story. Next day he met his Labour colleagues to dismiss them, and explain that he was now head of an ‘emergency’ government, a coalition completely dependent upon Liberal and Conservative votes. Only Chancellor Philip Snowden, Lord Privy Seal, J.H. Thomas, and a handful of junior ministers, went with him. The Labour Party was now the opposition, but an opposition rendered ineffectual and completely discredited by Labour’s behaviour and record when in government, by its sponsorship and acceptance of the ‘cuts’, and of the orthodox capitalist economics from which they were derived – the economics of enforced scarcity in a world of plenty.

For the massive retrenchment espoused by Labour as well as by the parties of capital, took place in a world where, for several years, output of food, raw materials and manufactures had risen steeply, far outstripping the growth of population. There was enough and to spare to feed, clothe and house the working millions of the world. But the remedy applied by the capitalist financiers, industrialists and politicians was the deliberate restoration of scarcity by closing the mills, mines and factories, cutting the wages of those still at work, destroying all kinds of crops including foodstuffs, letting land go out of cultivation, and limiting drastically the production of raw materials. The bread lines stretched across the world. One hundred million were estimated to be unemployed. In Britain, by the autumn of 1931, the registered unemployed totalled 2,824,774, and a million were on poor relief. The crisis of capitalism was plain for all to see. That its overthrow alone could provide reasonable provision for the people could now be plainly demonstrated. Objectively, for the third time since the war, the elements of a potential revolutionary situation were discernible.

On 25 August, the Daily Worker published the party’s pronouncement on the crisis. Its content called for immediate protest; but a hurried letter from myself, published next day in the Worker, and two subsequent letters which were not published – ‘the opening of a party discussion at the present moment is no way desirable’ wrote the political bureau – were inadequate, and in some ways over-cautious in formulation, mainly through anxiety to give the party leadership no pretext to exaggerate minor issues into monstrous heresies (a method learned from Comintern and Russian party leaders) so blotting out the major arguments. As it was, one or two bogies were raised which were to haunt us for a long time to come; and it is possible that we would have done better to have spoken out, irrespective of possible misrepresentation. [34]

As we came to see it, in those last August weeks and early September, the party’s forces were small, isolatcd from the main body of workers, unprepared, and immersed in operations and agitations unrelated to the development of the crisis. We communists were far too few to determine by ourselves the way things went. But there were leaders of the workers everywhere, active in factories, mills, union branches, trades councils, socialist societies and even Labour parties, hostile to capitalism and the employers, awake now, or partly so, to the ominous attacks on standards of living, prepared to resist and, maybe, in the course of the struggle, to go all the way with the revolution.

These local and industrial leaders would be to the fore, in the front line of the workers’ resistance to the cuts. Here could be mobilized a multitude of militants, close to the people and toughened politically by recent events. Somehow in each area a centre of struggle had to be created around which the workers could unite, debate and decide each step of the struggle. In many areas, the trades councils might provide this leadership and centre, but many of them had been reduced in strength, had expelled communists, and, as a consequence of the 1927 anti-trade union act, had divided themselves into separate political and industrial bodies. In such cases, improvised organization might be needed – committees or councils of action.

What we did in South-West London – where our group numbered less than a dozen, and where the whole party membership in Battersea and Wandsworth amounted to no more than a few dozen, was to make contact with the active militants and socialists in our area. In the first few days of September, one or two of us visited the ILP branches at Tooting and Clapham. Both branches were affiliated, as were all ILP branches, to the local Labour parties in the two constituencies; both had supported the small group of ILP members in the Commons who had defied Labour Party rules to speak and vote against the government’s treatment of the unemployed, and so had clashed with local Labour Party mandarins. We went to them honestly, saying in effect that though we held to our revolutionary views and would go on advocating them, and expected them to stick to their opinions, too, we thought we could work together to unite workers’ resistance to the cuts and for a socialist answer to the crisis. They responded generously, particularly in Clapham, and together we began to recruit from union branches, cooperative guilds and Labour Party wards, members for our committee, which was soon in regular session at the New Morris Hall in Clapham. In mid-September we threw a line of outdoor meetings across south-west London, covering Rrixton, Clapham, Battersea and Tooting, and these we maintained at regular intervals throughout September and October.

Parliament assembled in September. The communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM) and other organizations called on the unemployed to demonstrate outside Parliament; crowds came, not only the stalwarts of the NUWM from every London borough, but thousands of others, anonymous, bewildered, indignant, shaken out of quietude by the raging storm of economic crisis, and now drawn together in protest.

We are fellows still,
Serving alike in sorrow:
Leak’d is our bark,
And we poor mates,
Stand on the dying deck,
Hearing the surge’s threat ...

As darkness fell, the crowd grew, stretching away under the street lights as far as the eye could see. In front of Parliament, the mounted police charged again and again at the swirling crowds of cloth-capped men...

A tense excitement not felt since the General Strike was noticeable at all the local indoor and outdoor meetings. Where there were usually scores, there now were hundreds, and on occasions a thousand or more. The upturned, lamplit faces were serious, anxious, hopeful that the apostles of change, of class struggle, of revolution, would tell them what to do. Excitement grew when, on 15 September, the men of the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon refused to obey orders to sail, and, in tidy Navy fashion, took over the ships, ‘refusing to serve under the new rates of pay’. The government quickly appeased the sailors; but teachers and civil servants, not given in that period to militant protest, now marched and met in great numbers In Britain’s major cities, the unemployed in tens and scores of thousands surged in turbulent protest, often clashing violently with the police. The men of money began shifting their cash away from Britain, government credit tumbled and on 20 September, a government set up to keep Britain on the gold standard was forced to go off it. On 11 October postal workers, civil servants, teachers, unemployed and trade unionists staged a 100,000-strong united demonstration in Hyde Park.

Somewhere during those first few weeks of the crisis, the balance of forces shifted, the mood of the people changed subtly, imperceptibly, and the revolutionary prospect receded – though the battle against the cuts went on, and, it should be emphasized, went on under the leadership of the local militants all over the country. But without clearly communicated aims and a related strategy of progressively extending struggle, the militants in workshop, union branch and at labour exchange had nothing in the way of political ideas and purposes around which to rally and unite the movement – except resistance to the cuts. No visible, acceptable alternative emerged to the hopelessly compromised and discredited Labour Party leadership, which foundered and faltered still more in the swiftly-snatched election of 16 to 27 October, described by the Manchester Guardian as the ‘shortest, strangest and most fraudulent of our time’. The combined Liberal and Conservative vote gave the ‘National’ government an overwhelming electoral victory and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Labour Party, which held only fifty-two seats, approximately its representation in 1910. Only our failure as communists to create – under fire – a revolutionary party allowed the Labour Party subsequently to restore its influence over the workers.

In the election, 26 CPGB candidates polled 72,824 votes; and 43,892 of these were polled in four constituencies where conditions were especially favourable. The Central Committee admitted: ‘In many cases the difference in principle between the policy of the CP and the policy of the reformists was not at all made clear in the election campaign ... The party has absolutely failed to express the revolutionary way out of the crisis in concrete terms that the masses can understand ...’

In South-West London, our committee, or council of action as we had named it (hopefully but, I think, wrongly) was expanding and recruiting support in local union branches, at regular outdoor meetings, and at the labour exchanges, where we now led the local unemployed organization. The group had become the ‘Balham Group’, and had been strengthened by the transfer to it of Jim Barrett, a party member of nine years standing; and by the recruiting of some younger people, Cyril Whiting, Maurice Simmonds, Bill Pyne and Isabel Mussi. By the early months of 1932, members of the Balham Group were again engaged in an argument with the party leadership over the Central Committee’s ‘January resolution’. And by then, a few of us were in touch with the American Left Opposition, receiving its publications and talking over Left Opposition’s criticisms of the Comintern and the Russian party leadership.


17. CPGB, Resolutions of the 11th Congress, London 1930.
18. H. Pollitt, 10th Plenum Lessons, Communist Review, October 1929, p.567.
19. Communist Review, July 1930.
20. 20. Letters: R. Groves to Secretariat, 26 February 1930; Daily Worker Editorial Board reply, 24 March 1930.
21. W. Rust, The Daily Worker, Communist Review, June 1930, p.258.
22. W. Rust, The Story of The Daily Worker (ed. A. Hutt), London 1949, p.17: ‘On 1 April we introduced the Worker's Notebook which became one of our most popular and pungent features and with which the name of William Holmes will always be associated ...’
23. Letters: R. Groves to Secretariat, 22 April 1930 and 14 May 1930; Secretariat’s reply 14 May 1930. R. Groves to Secretariat and Daily Worker Editorial Board, 30 May 1930; Editorial Board replies 1 June and 22 June 1930; Secretariat’s replies 4 June and 8 July 1930.
24. A Worker’s Notebook, Daily Worker, 8 March, 9 March, 22 April, 25 May 1930.
25. ibid., 26 April 1930. See also Communist Review, April 1930.
26. Communist Review, May 1930 and October 1930.
27. F. Utley, Lancashire and the Far East, London 1931; and Cotton, CPGB London 1928. See also F. Utley, Odyssey of a Liberal, Washington 1970.
28. S. Purkis, Danger Ahead, Labour Monthly, November 1930, pp.668-69.
29. Political Bureau, CPGB, The Theoreticians of ‘Left’ Sectarianism and Spontaneity, Communist Review, January 1931, pp.11-19.
30. J. Mahon, The Workers’ Charter Convention, Labour Monthly, May 1931, pp.283-86.
31. W. Rust, The Eleventh Plenum of the ECCI, Communist Review, June 1931, p.22l.
32. R.P. Dutt, The Political Situation and the Fight for the Charter, Communist Review, June 1931, p.211.
33. P. Snowden, An Autobiography, London 1934, p.942: ‘The only proposal to which the general council were not completely opposed was that the salaries of ministers and judges should be subjected to a cut.’
34. R Groves, Letter to the Daily Worker, 25 August, 1931.


Balham Group Index  |  ETOL Home Page  |  Chapter 3

Last updated on 27.12.2002