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International Socialism, Summer 2000


Judy Cox

Skinning a live tiger paw by paw:
Reform, revolution and Labour


From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The suppressed alternatives of British socialism

Thousands of Labour Party supporters are questioning their political loyalties today. This is not the first time in the party’s 100-year history that such a debate has raged. At times throughout the last century Labour’s failure to challenge the Tories effectively in opposition and its failure to deliver real change when in office have provoked great frustration amongst Labour’s rank and file. Under certain circumstances, when there is a generalised crisis in society, such frustrations can crystallise in organisations that seek to build independently of the Labour Party. Today many Labour supporters are again confronting the possibility of building organisation outside the Labour Party to effect fundamental social change.

In the 1930s two significant organisations, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Socialist League, broke away from the Labour Party. Many historians have argued that the ultimate demise of the ILP and the short life of the League demonstrate the impossibility of organising an independent working class party that does not subordinate all its activities to parliament. Robert McKenzie, for example, wrote that ‘the real problem was that the ILP refused to conform to British parliamentary practice in the way the Labour Party itself had already done ... the Labour Party had completely broken with the old, naive view that a parliamentary party should be the servant of a mass movement’. [1] The ILP was characterised by its attempts to unite parliamentary politics with movements outside parliament. It was a key early component of Labour’s left wing and this attempt at combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity became a hallmark of the Labour left. This strategy had a contradictory impact: the Labour left was ‘a mechanism which relates the parliamentary opposition to extra-parliamentary dissent – functioning to prevent the former ever becoming fully integrated into official society and to prevent the latter developing into anything more than dissent’. [2]

The decline of the ILP and the League in the 1930s was not an inevitable consequence of their break from Labour: rather it was because they did not break radically enough. The early Labour movement broke from the Liberal Party organisationally but politically it continued to be constrained by Liberal politics for many years. Similarly, those that broke away from Labour organisationally continued to be hampered by Labourist politics, subordinating movements to the parliamentary process. The story of these organisations suggests that organisational breaks from the Labour Party are not enough – political breaks with Labourism, parliamentary politics and the trade union bureaucracy are necessary if effective organisation is to be built outside Labour. It is, therefore, worth unearthing what David Howell has called the ‘suppressed alternatives of British socialism’ to assess what lessons they might hold for those contemplating political life outside the New Labour Party today.

Socialists without socialism

The ILP was established in 1893, with Keir Hardie as its leader. Its creation was part of a process by which the British working class gradually asserted its political independence from Liberalism. The politics of the ILP were also distinct from other left wing groups because of their close links with the organisations of the working class. Hardie, for example, built his reputation organising unions in the Lanarkshire coalfields, while ILP national secretary Tom Mann had led the Great Dock Strike of 1889. In contrast, the leading Marxist organisation of the time, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), was characterised by sectarianism and a ‘lofty contempt for trade unions as vehicles of small scale reform’. [3]

The ILP prided itself on the political diversity of its members: some were influenced by Marx, more by the Bible. Theoretically, the ILP incorporated a hotch-potch of different traditions, from temperance campaigns, ideas of working class self help, religious dissent, left Liberalism and Marxism. Hardie himself has been described as so naive that he could not recognise the difference between politics and morality. [4] The ILP’s strategy was to convert the newly formed Labour Party to socialism. This essentially parliamentary strategy imposed a discipline on the ILP left so that, even in these early years, practical, pragmatic considerations undermined their attempts to challenge the continuing influence of the left Liberals in the ILP. Thus the left wingers agreed to call themselves ‘independent’ as opposed to ‘socialist’, so as not to alienate the union leaders: the ILPers became ‘socialists without socialism’. Those on the right of the ILP, such as Ramsay MacDonald, agreed to Labour’s formal independence from the Liberals, but in practice never stopped trying to subvert that independence. When the ILP joined the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, forerunner of the Labour Party, in 1900 it was not the dominant force. Rather, as ILP historian G.D.H. Cole wrote, the new Labour alliance had ‘the ILP as its soul, the trade unions as its muscle, and the Fabians as its brain’. [5]

The ILP was the main path non trade unionists could take into the Labour Party. In 1906, 29 Labour Representation Committee (LRC) sponsored candidates who were elected were ILP members, and seven other ILPers were elected to parliament. By 1909 the ILP had 887 branches and 22,000 members to its credit. Yet this success could not disguise that the ILP was wracked by tensions between the parliamentary leadership and the rank and file. ILP branches often worked with, and closely resembled, SDF branches in a ‘largely intuitive response to the growing feeling of the need for an independent working class party’ [6], while the parliamentary leadership sought respectability and alliances with non-labour parties in parliament.

Despite its links to the working class movement and the radicalism of its rank and file, when a great wave of struggle swept across Britain in the years before the First World War, the ILP’s parliamentary focus left it incapable of responding. One historian sympathetic to the ILP described how the strike wave and the militant Suffragette movement, ‘forces which the ILP was apparently unable to comprehend ... made it appear tired and irrelevant’. [7] The ILP membership was soon in open revolt against the ILP and Labour leaders, who seemed to be drifting back into dependency on the Liberals. By 1911 several ILP branches left the party to help form a new Marxist organisation, the British Socialist Party (BSP). Unfortunately, the BSP failed to escape the sterile sectarianism of the SDF – at no point was it capable of offering a clear, distinct alternative to the ILP. Ironically, the BSP decided to affiliate to the Labour Party in 1914, just at the point when many ILP and Labour Party members were looking to organisations to the left of the parliamentary party.

The ILP’s third way

The outbreak of war in 1914 radically changed the political situation. In August 1914 few of the formally anti-war socialist parties of Europe were able to resist falling into line behind their respective ruling classes. The ILP was one organisation that did resist. Within a week of the outbreak of war the ILP issued a brave statement condemning the war: ‘Out of the darkness and the depths we hail our working class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greetings to the German socialists ... They are no enemies of ours but are our faithful friends.’ [8] In the early months of the war ILP members were frequently attacked and beaten up and many were imprisoned for their anti-war stand. Out of 1,191 trials of conscientious objectors, 805 were ILP members of whom 70 died in detention as a result of mistreatment.

Running through the ILP’s anti-war stance was a strong current of Christian pacifism. Religious, ethical socialism influenced both the right and the far left of the party: Scottish ILP leader James Maxton joked on his release from a prison sentence for sedition that fellow prisoner and future Communist Willie Gallagher ‘might have been liberated on Saturday but refused to go out ‘til Monday so that he would not miss the Sunday Bible class’. There were two other distinct aspects to the ILP’s opposition to the war. Right wing ILPers, such as Ramsay MacDonald, who resigned as Labour leader, and Phillip Snowden, who was acknowledged as Labour’s financial expert, opposed the war on the same basis as sections of the Liberal establishment – foreign wars should be opposed because they damaged free trade. Spurred on by these ideas, sections of the ILP threw themselves into campaigns that involved middle class, intellectual anti-war campaigners, particularly in London. Through their involvement in the Union for Democratic Control (UDC) and the Non- Conscription Fellowship, which attracted up to 16,000 supporters, they gained a new generation of recruits from among the radical ex-Liberals, including philosopher Bertrand Russell who was also imprisoned for sedition during the war.

The second strand of opposition to the war was generated by the pre-war traditions of the international socialist movement. Keir Hardie had represented the ILP at conferences organised by the Second International where resolutions calling on members to oppose war by all means necessary were passed. This tradition had incorporated discussions of organising general strikes to stop war, and of turning any crisis towards the overthrow of the ruling class, but the ILP’s opposition to the war fell short of these tactics. However, the generalised revolt against the war that developed influenced the ILP in some areas, especially in Scotland. Fenner Brockway, an English ILP member who visited Glasgow regularly during the war, summed up the differences between the English and Scottish ILP: ‘Whilst we were exposing the duplicity of the foreign policy which had led to the war and advocating a peace of no conquests and no indemnities, they were denouncing rent increases and profiteering and the speed-up and long hours of munition workers. We concentrated on peace. They concentrated on the class struggle.’ [9]

Between 1917 and 1918 the number of Scottish ILP branches doubled to 201 and its membership trebled to just under 10,000. The militancy of figures like James Maxton was not typical of the ILP in Scotland. While he was imprisoned for inciting workers to strike despite the war effort, another leading ILP member, Davie Kirkwood, was actively opposing strikes that could damage the war effort and provide an excuse for attacking the union’s organisation (although his stance did not prevent him from being deported from Scotland by the British state). The majority of the ILP in Scotland supported the war effort and limited their activity to defending union organisation. Their finest moment came with their involvement in the Glasgow rent strike of 1915, which the Labour Party opposed. Thus the ILP built a left wing reputation, so that when 110,000 marched through Glasgow on May Day 1918 the mass rally gave Maxton a rapturous response and passed a resolution agreeing to send greetings to the Soviet Union and the workers of ‘enemy’ Germany. The ILP successfully orientated on campaigns such as the UDC, rent control, and opposition to allied intervention in Russia, but was incapable of linking political opposition to the war to economic demands or of developing a consistent working class opposition to the war. Its political confusions were painfully exposed by its response to the Russian Revolution.

The anti-war movement and the recruitment of ex-Liberal intellectuals combined to awaken the ILP’s interest in foreign affairs, strengthened by the view that British social problems could only be solved in the context of international trade. The majority of rank and file members, however, believed that the world’s problems could not be solved within the context of capitalism. This political tension came to a head over the Russian Revolution, which had a dramatic effect on the whole labour movement. Sylvia Pankhurst, who had very close links with Keir Hardie, refashioned her paper, the Dreadnought, into ‘an organ of International Socialism with a Bolshevik policy’. A huge meeting was held in the Albert Hall addressed by George Lansbury and ILPer Bob Smillie to celebrate the revolution. Beyond this excitement the revolution raised a practical question: which of the rival Second and Third Internationals should the ILP support? ‘The reaction of the party to these Internationals, that is to the question of whether the ILP was to be a party of social reform or of social revolution, is indicative both of the ambiguity in the ILP’s position after 1918 in British politics, and of the divisions in the party’. [10] Despite a series of meetings held by the Second International in Switzerland between February 1919 and August 1920, the majority of the ILP members remained hostile to this International, its support for the war and its condemnation of the Bolsheviks. ILP member John Paton summed up the feelings of many when he said, ‘For me as for most socialists, the fate of world socialism was bound up with the success or failure of the Russian Revolution.’ [11] The ILP disaffiliated from the Second International in August 1920.

On the other hand, leading figures like MacDonald and Snowden remained implacably hostile to joining the revolutionary Third International. MacDonald had supported the Second International as ‘the only real bulwark against Bolshevism short of military executions’. [12] Snowden drew on the pacifism of the war years to condemn revolution, arguing that workers’ power was a ‘treacherous mirage’, and that it was ‘better to continue to suffer under domination and oppression than gain economic power through blood and slaughter. For what shall it profit us if we gain the material world and lose our own souls?’ [13] Despite them, the ILP requested permission to join the Third International without accepting the idea that armed revolt is necessary to establish socialism. The application to join on these terms was rejected and the ILP leadership entered into negotiations with other European parties caught in the same dilemma. The result was the short lived ‘Second and a Half International’ (which was to collapse back into the Second International in May 1923). This International accepted the need for armed struggle only in the context of defending democracy from counter-revolution.

This whole debate encapsulated the ILP’s centrist politics. Centrist organisations are characterised by an unstable mixture of revolutionary rhetoric combined with reformist practice. John Wheatley, for example, was one of many ILP leaders who could combine talk of bloody revolution with an exclusive focus on parliament: ‘The people of this country may have socialism when they consider it worth their vote. I fail to see how whether morally justified or not a popular revolt in present circumstances could be successful in Britain where political power is held by the capitalist...a bloody revolution is far too slow whether viewed from the standpoint of democracy or expediency. I prefer the ILP policy of relying more upon brains than bullets.’ [14] The centrist politics of the ILP meant that, when they did have an opportunity to lead serious action, they were terrified of their own power. In 1919 the Triple Alliance of the three major trade unions threatened to bring the government down. Prime minister Lloyd George asked the miners’ leader and longstanding ILP member, Bob Smillie, if he had considered what would happen afterwards, if union leaders were prepared to take over the running of the country. Smillie reported, ‘From that moment on, we knew we were beaten’ [15], a reply that became notorious as a statement of the impotence of left wing reformism when confronted with the question of state power. Even electoral success could terrify ILP leaders who often understood the limits of parliamentary reform better than those who supported them. In 1922, for example, some leading Clydeside ILPers were elected to parliament amidst scenes of great euphoria. ILP member Emmanuel Shinwell described his fear at the Glaswegian workers’ ‘frightening faith in us. We had been elected because it was believed that we could perform miracles.’ [16]

The shaky compromise of the Second and a Half International did not prevent a damaging split from the party’s left wing. Several hundred left wingers, including Emile Burns and S Saklatvala, set up Left Wing Committees to agitate for affiliation to the Third International. Following their defeat at the ILP conference in 1921, they joined the Communist Party that had been formed in 1920. Despite the example of the Russian Revolution, and fevered discussions about workers’ councils and industrial democracy which took place in the ILP, when the ILP formally debated its future strategy it was the parliamentarian perspective which won. The ILP’s election manifesto called for a ‘people’s parliament’ rather than workers’ councils. The ILP reaffirmed its commitment to parliament at a time when many of its rank and file members were looking to revolutionary politics.

One historian has pointed out how this episode expressed the situation which confronted the ILP at every turn: ‘There is no simple resting place for a centre party in British left politics between the CP and the Labour Party. In a sense the drama of the ILP was played out between 1921 and 1924 in its attempt and failure to form a bridge between the Second and the Third Internationals’. [17] The space between the Communist Party and the Labour Party became even more squeezed when, in 1918, the Labour Party adopted a new constitution. This created local Labour Party branches that would compete with ILP branches directly for the first time. The constitution also formally committed the Labour Party to a version of socialism very similar to the ILP’s project of socialising the means of production, distribution and exchange. This policy ‘victory’ threw the ILP’s reason for existing into doubt. As long as its focus remained on parliament, it appeared as ‘a political jumble sale, with many bargains but nothing new’. [18]

In addition, the British Communist Party, carrying with it the great prestige of the Russian Revolution, stole the ILP’s mantle of the conscience of the left. Throughout the 1920s the ILP and the Communist Party battled for the leadership of the militant sections of the working class. ILP members like Jennie Lee toured working class areas debating with CP members in packed public halls. When the Labour leaders moved to block the CP’s affiliation to Labour in 1924 and to disaffiliate individual Communists from its branches in 1925, the CP launched a big affiliation campaign through the Left Wing Movement and the Sunday Worker. While James Maxton supported the CP as a legitimate part of the labour movement, the ILP delegation to the Labour Party conference voted 13 to ten in favour of its exclusion. It took until 1928 for Labour to exclude Communists attending its conferences as trade union delegates, but the ILP had chosen to support Labour against the Communists. James Maxton defended the ILP’s continuing efforts to bridge the gap between the Labour Party and the Communists, declaring that anyone who can’t ride two horses at once has no right to be in the circus. [19] This proved to be wishful thinking, as historian Dowse pointed out: ‘ [As] a result of this attempt to straddle two opposed camps, and indeed opposed political traditions, the ILP was open to attack from both. The democratic revolutionary synthesis lays itself open to the charge of prevarication and confusion.’ [20] Such charges would re-emerge throughout the following decade.

After the upheavals which followed the First World War, ‘it was as if someone had picked up the world and shaken it into utter confusion. There were no permanent values. What were paper or diamonds, gold, houses, or factories? A transient illusion, a fleeting gleam, a dissolving fantasy.’ [21] Britain did not recover economically from the First World War as well as other countries did and throughout the 1920s unemployment never fell below one million. Consequently the 1920s were years of growth for Labour and the left. As the tide of the post-war struggle fell, many looked to parliament to win the change they had been unable to secure through their own activity. Labour moved from its position as the official opposition to form two minority governments in 1924 and 1929. The first half of the decade also saw the pinnacle of the ILP’s success. The ILP experienced a massive growth in the activity and enthusiasm of its members, its subscriptions, its printshop, its study circles and its rallies and demonstrations. By December 1925 its youth organisation, the Guild of Youth, had 171 branches, and the party had 121 ILP sponsored MPs in parliament.

Yet, as so often in the history of the ILP, ‘at the pinnacle of its power, its weaknesses were most obvious’. [22] MacDonald wanted the Labour Party to be a respectable opposition, with a left wing confined to making socialist propaganda. During its first period in office the ILP coined the slogan ‘In office, not in power’ to justify the impotence of the minority government. Those absorbed in the parliamentary process felt under great pressure not to criticise a minority government, which after all had three ILP members in its cabinet. More radical rank and file ILP members found that they could not impose their policies on their MPs, only half of whom ever went to ILP meetings and who abandoned ILP policies to support the government in vote after vote.

After the government fell in October 1924 an article in the ILP’s paper, New Leader, expressed the ILP’s feeling of relief: ‘We have lost office and gained the right to be ourselves’ [23], but there was no agreement about what the ILP really was. The left’s opposition was confined to parliamentary rhetoric which irritated the leaders. ‘For God’s sake let yourselves go on the big issues, leave the details to the men who are at the face of the cutting, cheer sometimes and have less damned critical wisdom upon things about which you are not really well informed’ [24], MacDonald admonished them. However, they had no impact on the party’s policies. Throughout the first Labour government, it was impossible to detect the ‘ILP spirit’ in anything the government did. ‘At a time when the ILP was reaching the summit of its post-war success, its achievement in legislative terms was negligible.’ [25]

The ILP left wing felt the need to respond to the failure of the government and the defeat of the General Strike in 1926. During the strike the official Labour Party was significant only for its total disinterest, while the ILP did at least offer to lay its considerable resources and propaganda machine at the disposal of the TUC – although the offer was rejected. Rank and file ILP members worked hard to support the strike and the locked out miners, collecting more than £50,000 for the strikers. A.J. Cook wrote in the New Leader that the miners ‘would never forget the generosity of the ILP in this titanic struggle’. [26] However, the ILP failed to provide any alternative to the disastrous leadership of the TUC and now wanted to rejuvenate the working class. James Maxton, the ‘conscience of the ILP’ who had succeeded the more moderate Cliff Allen as ILP leader, published a new programme, ‘Socialism in our Time’. The document called for nationalisation and a living wage but no one seemed certain as to whether this was a programme for reform or an attempt to expose the impossibility of reform to the working class. Thus Eleanor Rathbone said of the programme, ‘With our eyes open, we are asking for the impossible.’ [27]

In June 1928 James Maxton took the initiative to launch a new manifesto with the militant miners’ leader A.J. Cook. Maxton justified this manifesto against its critics by writing in the New Leader that he was ‘merely trying to keep the ILP on the road where Keir Hardie had set its feet’. However, the document was a clear attempt to lead the ILP away from the Labour Party that was ‘soaked in parliamentary opportunism’. A companion publication to the manifesto, The Case for a Socialist Revival, called for the abolition of the monarchy, nationalisation without compensation and a tax on all wealth over £5,000. This attempt at a socialist revival, however, failed to penetrate into the working class. The union leaders resented interference in their affairs and the ILP failed to build independently of them amongst a working class which remained demoralised after the general strike.

In the 1929 election Labour was close to winning a majority for the first time. Its slogan, ‘The pits are closed ... but the ballot box is open’, promised that parliamentary action could bring about real change – this promise was not to be fulfilled. Instead of helping the unemployed, Labour’s leader, ex-ILP member Ramsay MacDonald, turned on them. In August 1931 the Labour cabinet was told that to save the pound’s position it must cut unemployment benefit by 10 percent. The cabinet resigned but MacDonald formed a National Government with the Tories and won 500 seats at the subsequent election. MacDonald’s act of treachery had a massive impact on the ILP: it ‘shattered the illusion of the ‘inevitability of gradualism’. [28] To many left wingers it was a serious warning that the ruling class would resist any moves towards socialism. It spurred the formerly moderate R.H.N. Tawney to realise that ‘onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw: vivisection is its trade and it will do the skinning.’

However, the Labour leadership continued to pursue a policy of MacDonaldism without MacDonald. They went on the offensive against the ILP, with leader Arthur Henderson declaring that there could be no party within the party. Loyalty pledges were demanded from Labour members, and ILP supporters were excluded from selection processes. The real issue was not a technical one. It was ‘whether to make futile attempts to rebuild capitalism or boldly lay the foundations of a new social order’. Many socialists across Europe responded to the growing threat of fascism and war by looking to more radical ideas, the left wing in social democratic parties grew and left wing splits from social democracy developed. While the Comintern was in its sectarian ‘class against class’ phase, dismissing everyone else as ‘social fascists’, Trotsky’s writings on Spain and Germany calling for united fronts against fascism won a small but significant audience. In 1932 an ILP Statement of Policy talked of the need for extra-parliamentary activity, but it was the ILP’s Revolutionary Policy Committee (RPC) that was beginning to take the initiative. One socialist active at the time described the RPC as ‘wide open to Trotskyist ideas at this time, though not later’. [29]

The ILP was on a collision course with the Labour leaders, but held back because of a fear that leaving the Labour Party would lead to isolation from the working class, a fear deepened by the ILP’s lack of roots inside the working class. As late as March 1932 the ILP conference voted against disaffiliating from Labour, favouring a fudged policy of ‘conditional affiliation’. It was the Labour leaders who refused to compromise and prompted the ILP’s final decision to withdraw from all positions in unions, co-operative societies and the Labour Party. A significant number of ILP members ‘believed that there was a real possibility of crushing the Labour Party in open competition for working class support in the country’. [30] What they did not realise was the impact the parliamentary game they had been playing for so long would have on their members. Between July and November 1932 they lost 203 branches out of a total 653.

To some, like writer Geoffrey Foote, this collapse of membership should serve as ‘a chilling reminder to the Labour left of Keir Hardie’s belief that they must subordinate their socialism to their Labourism if they are to survive’. [31] In fact it was the ‘Labourism’ of the ILP, its dependence on parliament rather than working class organisation that prevented it from building its party on its own. Despite this the ILP did hang on to a handful of MPs until 1945 and did maintain a political base in places like Glasgow. The problem was that it was not large enough in parliament to forge a political party and neither was it agitational enough to have an impact on movements outside.

Despite these weaknesses there were thousands of committed working class socialists inside the party, including revolutionaries like Hugo Dewar. ILPers were very active in local campaigns against unemployment and against the threat of war, such as the South West London Anti-War Committee, which united trade unionists, ILPers and dissident Communists. Experience elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany, suggested that the rank and file of centrist organisations like the ILP could be won en masse to joining more consistently revolutionary parties. [32] Such potential was not realised in the early 1930s because the CP persisted in labelling the ILP left wing as social fascists. In April 1932, just at the point when the ILP was debating disaffiliation, Harry Pollitt wrote in the Daily Worker, ‘The ILP and the CP have nothing in common: it is a war to the death.’ According to Harry Wicks who was an active socialist at the time, the CP ‘grievously underestimated the liveliness in the ILP’ and were shocked by the disaffiliation vote.

Those ILP members who stayed inside the Labour Party joined forces with a group of disenchanted Fabians to form an academic pressure group, the Society for Social Inquiry and Propaganda, which initially limited its ambitions to influencing MPs. On the death of longstanding ILP member Frank Wise in 1931, the leadership of the group was taken by a nephew of Beatrice Webb, Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps was a successful barrister who rapidly became the bête noire of the British establishment. He had only been elected to parliament in 1929, a right winger imposed by the leadership on a left wing constituency, but already showed signs of developing ‘one of the most dazzling and contradictory political careers of the 20th century’. [33] Cripps declared that his election to lead the group, now the Socialist League, would mark a sharp break with the past. In the early 1930s economic crisis and the rise of Hitler to power in Germany lent a new urgency to socialist politics, and the League enjoyed initial success. Its membership included Labour rebel Nye Bevan, former Communist Ellen Wilkinson and future prime minister Clement Attlee as well as intellectuals like Cole, Tawney and Harold Laski. By 1933 Cripps wrote with passion of the need to make effective propaganda for taking power and for preparing to beat off the sabotage from the City and the House of Lords. He also wrote of the need to create a new leadership, to ‘create guards of the revolution and create them now for when the revolution comes it will be too late’. [34] By January 1934 Cripps made a notorious speech in which he spoke of the need for socialists to overcome resistance from Buckingham Palace in their struggle. Such disrespect was enough to bring vilification down on the head of the ‘Red Squire’, who rather feebly said that he had not meant the crown.

Such ambiguities have led many labour historians to downplay the revolutionary aspects of the League’s politics. Pimlott, for example, with some justification describes it as ‘intellectual and nothing else, all leaders and no followers’, while Foote argues that ‘Cripps merely envisaged action to protect parliamentary democracy against any illegal moves from the ruling class’. Miliband pointed to the fact that Cripps denied being a revolutionary in correspondence with the attorney general who had accused him of advocating violent revolution, although under those circumstances his denials are hardly surprising! The League’s politics did have contradictory aspects, but they were not static. Politically they were evolving fast, mainly because of the pressure of international events. Others saw the potential of the League. By the spring of 1933 Communist J.T. Murphy was convinced that the Socialist League had succeeded in making clear to itself and others that it was ‘not merely the rump of the ILP carrying on, but the organisation of revolutionary socialists who are an integral part of the labour movement for the purposes of winning it completely for revolutionary socialism’. [35]

The League’s radicalism was aimed at breaking out of the left’s political impotence and rousing the working class to take the militant action required to overcome the threat of fascism. Throughout the early 1930s the Labour left constantly tried to overcome the inertia of the trade union leaders. What it could not do was overcome the low level of confidence in the working class movement which resulted in the election of Tory governments throughout the 1930s. However, what the left could do was unite in ad hoc committees, which it began to do in 1934. Action over questions such as unemployment was impossible without the Communist Party, which had organised amongst the unemployed for many years, but the Labour leaders reiterated their position that acting with the CP was incompatible with Labour Party membership.

Despite this the real fear that Britain might slide into what Cripps called ‘country gentleman fascism’ created a massive momentum for unity on the left. The League never had more than 3,000 members with 100 branches, and the ILP continued to lose members (between 1933 and 1935 it lost 60 percent of its membership), but despite their weaknesses both still represented significant forces. Neither the League nor the ILP were masters of their own fate. Whether they liked it or not their future outside Labour depended on the actions of the Communists both for theory and extra-parliamentary practice. The CP had abandoned its Third Period isolation, and by 1936 negotiations for united activity between Cripps, Maxton, Brockway, Pollitt and Palme Dutt opened, spurred on by the victory of Hitler’s stooge Dollfuss in Austria and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Spain ‘cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.’ [36]

The Labour left and the ILP had a practical need for the Communist Party. They understood that the fight against fascism had to be conducted on a class basis, but had few practical links with the working class movement. The CP had built up such links through the Minority Movement of the early 1920s, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and the hunger marches. Politically, support for Soviet Russia had an almost religious intensity on the Labour left. The victory of fascism in Germany strengthened the pressure to drop any criticisms of Russia. As Victor Gollancz wrote to ILP historian Henry Brailsford, ‘Support of the Soviet Union at the present juncture is (as the one hope of averting war) of such overwhelming importance that anything that could be quoted by the other side should not be said.’ [37] Thus both practical and political interests determined that that unity was built on the CP’s terms. In the summer of 1936 the first show trials of old revolutionaries were staged by the Stalinist regime. The execution of Kamenev and Zinoviev was greeted by aDaily Worker headline, Shoot The Reptiles. The ILP raised some muted criticisms of Soviet justice, while Tribune raised none. Instead they gave rave reviews to Beatrice and Sydney Webb’s book praising Stalinist Russia and published Barbara Betts’s glowing accounts of her trips to Russia. At the height of the trials, in February 1938, Tribune argued, ‘Many socialists may be horrified by the suppression of those in Soviet Russia who are critical of the regime. But who can believe that the transformation of old Russia into a socialist society could proceed without severity or without error.’ [38]

The ILP and the League supported a strategy of bringing working class organisations together in a united front against fascism. However, in 1935 the CP had turned to the policy of the popular front which involved forming alliances with ‘progressives’ from among right wing and ruling class parties. The CP actually began to criticise the ILP for continuing to oppose the Labour leadership. [39] The League and the ILP were in the unfortunate position of advocating the workers’ front with very little influence over the working class, while the CP was advocating alliances with anti-fascist Tories. Maintaining unity on these terms involved the League and the ILP in political convolutions. Tribune, for example, opposed the popular front as a strategy in Britain but supported it as a strategy for the Spanish Revolution. At the same time the ILP found its members literally on opposite sides of the barricades from the CP in Barcelona in May 1937. The CP insisted on a popular front in Spain, which depended on preventing the revolutionary forces unleashed by the anti-fascist movement from alienating rich, powerful republicans. The ILP supported the POUM, a Marxist organisation which argued that the war against fascism could only be won if the revolution was deepened. By June 1937 the POUM was labelled as ‘Trotskyist-fascist’ and made illegal, and had its leaders arrested and murdered by Communists. Bob Smillie, grandson of the miners’ leader and ILP youth organiser, fought in Spain. He was arrested in a Communist-inspired witch-hunt and died in a Spanish jail, aged only 21. In the short term the threat of fascism encouraged unity at any cost whilst in the long term such compromises would undermine the possibility of building a movement that could challenge capitalism effectively.

It was the CP which first labelled Oswald Mosley a fascist and initiated the painful but effective strategy of disrupting his meetings. When Mosley sought to bolster his credibility by marching through London’s East End, the CP united with the ILP and Jewish groups to mobilise over 100,000 people to stop 3,000 blackshirts marching. Encouraged by this example of what unity in action could achieve, despite virulent opposition from the Labour leaders, the Unity Campaign was formally launched in January 1937. Michael Foot described the Unity Campaign as ‘the most ambitious bid made by the British left throughout whole period of the 30s to break the stultifying rigidity of party alignments’. The launch took place at a packed meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Three days later the Socialist League was disaffiliated from Labour, with Labour leader Ernest Bevin comparing Cripps to Oswald Mosley. However, the Unity Campaign was a great success. In the first month over 12,000 were involved in meetings at which speakers of the standing of Nye Bevan, Cripps, Pollitt and Gallagher inspired the crowds. Within two months the campaign had 100 branches, with 18,000 having signed pledge cards and £12,000 collected. The campaign organised over 40 demonstrations – one marcher recalled the atmosphere: ‘With clenched fists held aloft we chanted as we marched, ‘Red Front, Red Front, Red United Fighting Front’. [40]

This was a promising start which indicated the potential for organising independently of the Labour Party, but the League never succeeded in challenging the hold of the union leaders: ‘To people on the left it [the Unity Campaign] seemed to penetrate almost everywhere only to lap in vain against the closed doors of Transport House.’ [41] Neither did the League succeed in breaking politically from the hold of the union leaders: ‘What was significant about the League in this period was not, however, that it was effectively the shadow of the CP, but that when Transport House demanded it, it ceased to be this shadow.’ [42] When the Labour leadership threatened League members with disaffiliation the League retreated, then retreated again and disbanded, ‘preferring to sacrifice itself rather than provide an excuse for disunity’. The League derived its position from parliamentary politics, not activity in the working class. This meant that breaking with the Labour leadership would have meant rejecting precisely what gave the League members their prominence in the labour movement.

The Labour Party outlawed the Unity Campaign, the Committee of Party Members Sympathetic to Unity which succeeded it, and any campaign for unity with the ILP and the CP. When the question was raised at the Labour Party conference, Herbert Morrison launched a devastating attack, exposing all the political tensions within the Unity Campaign: ‘I understand Sir Stafford to say that you must never appear with well to do persons on a platform, or a person of another party, and that you ought to appear on a platform only with working class representatives ... Would Mr Pollitt appear on a platform with socialist, working class Trotsky? He would not. If some of the leaders of the POUM in Spain and a working class party came to London and the ILP wanted another united front platform with them and Mr Pollitt, Mr Pollitt would not appear. But Mr Pollitt will appear with the Duchess of Atholl.’ [43] The leadership carried the day by 2,116,000 votes to 310,000.

Following this defeat Cripps attempted to break out of his isolation by embracing the popular front strategy. This also reflected his growing pessimism about the immediate prospects for socialism. The ILP broke away from the popular front strategy, but it was not capable of fighting for an alternative without the Communist Party. The peak of agitation for the popular front was reached in the winter of 1938–1939. Cripps launched a ‘manifesto’ which he threatened to circulate widely in the labour movement, arguing for a popular front against war involving everyone except for Churchill ‘the warmonger’s’ Tory group (Churchill was opposed to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich in 1938). The Labour Party’s National Executive Committee took the unusual step of attacking Cripps in a television broadcast. Cripps refused to withdraw his document and stormed out of the party. The same night he appeared at a massive ‘Arms to Spain’ rally with Gollancz, Bevan, miners and International Brigaders: ‘It was legitimate to dream that a political breakthrough might be possible.’ [44] Nye Bevan defied the Labour leadership, declaring of Cripps, ‘His crime is my crime!’ This was such a serious crisis for Labour that the Daily Express commented, ‘The Labour Party has blown its brains out.’ Over 220 constituency parties sent resolutions protesting against Cripps’s expulsion. A national petition was launched in January 1939 that called for unity against war and fascism, the defence of democracy, a plan for plenty, peace and justice for all subject nations. It won an impressive list of allies and Cripps received a rapturous response on a national speaking tour.

This great enthusiasm could not withstand the turns of Moscow’s foreign policy. Tribune continued to support Russia through the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 and the carve-up of Poland. However, when Russia invaded Finland, even Tribune was moved to point out that the action smacked more of Mein Kampf than of The Communist Manifesto. Historian Ben Pimlott is highly critical of the popular front campaigns of the 1930s, arguing that the involvement of the CP undermined potential support for worthy causes. However, it is hard to see what other forces on the left could have provided the point of attraction that the CP did. The ILP was politically so confused, with even its left wing leaders wedded to parliament, not to independent working class activity. The League was politically more focused, but it too tried to reconcile parliament with extra-parliamentary forces, embodied in Cripps’s advocacy of emergency powers legislation to overcome ruling class resistance to a socialist government. In addition, both organisations derived their support from speeches and journalistic skills, not from organising in the working class movement outside parliament. Only the Communist Party could provide the pivot around which unity outside Labour could be built. The CP won many recruits and many more fought alongside the Communists and under their leadership: the tragedy was that its revolutionary potential was constantly undermined by the hold of Stalinist politics.


There are two currents inside the Labour Party: the right wing and the leadership, who want to focus exclusively on parliament, and the rank and file, who have stronger links to the movement outside parliament and stronger socialist inclinations. The rank and file tend to support the leadership against the Tory party, but when Labour is in government or fails to oppose the Tories they can quickly become bitterly angry with the leadership. Under circumstances where left wing movements develop, socialist groupings can gain the confidence to leave Labour and organise independently. However, the history of the ILP and the League suggests that organisational breaks are not sufficient to guarantee success. Unless organisation is matched by a political break with parliament and a serious orientation of the struggles of the working class, parties to the left of Labour can wither despite waves of radicalisation. The ILP was a left wing reformist organisation that could offer no serious alternative to Labour and did not have the authority of the Russian Revolution behind it. Likewise the League was dependent on the CP and shaped by its politics. They both discovered that any organisation seeking to establish a third way between reformism and revolutionary politics is destined to remain dependent on both.

In the 1930s the Communist Party, despite its twists and turns, despite the horrors of Stalinist Russia, its show trials and pact with Hitler, was the organisation that attracted the best militants and activists. Amongst young people the CP won large sections of the ILP’s Guild of Youth organisation and the Labour League of Youth. Industrially the CP built its influence in engineering, the aircraft industry and the mines. Communist Arthur Horner, who had been elected leader of the South Wales Miners, was joined by fellow Communist John Horner, who was elected as leader of the Fire Brigades Union. Intellectually, the CP attracted the best of a generation of students. Victor Gollanz’s Communist-influenced Left Book Club was an ‘immediate, overwhelming success – as a publishing venture, mass movement and crusade all rolled into one’. [45] Within a year of its launch the club had 58,000 members with around 12,000 involved in discussion groups every fortnight. The CP’s membership recovered from the depths of the ‘class against class’ period – by 1938 it had 15,500 members and was growing rapidly. The growth of the Communist Party despite its Stalinist politics stands as testimony to the possibilities of building outside Labour, on the basis of orientating on the struggles and campaigns of the working class.

The possibility to reproduce these successes on the basis of consistently revolutionary politics is opening up again today. The lesson of the experiences of the ILP and League is that socialists need to build roots inside the working class movement. The lesson from the success of the CP is that socialists must seize every opportunity to organise united front campaigns to encourage those breaking away from New Labour to be involved in activity. As Trotsky wrote, ‘The united front opens up numerous possibilities, but nothing more. In itself, the united front decides nothing. Only the struggle of the masses decides.’


1. A. McKinlay and R.J. Morris (eds.), The ILP and the Clydeside: 1893–1932 (Manchester University Press 1991), p. 3.

2. C. Harman, The Tribune of the People, International Socialism 1:21, 1965.

3. R.H. Dowse, Inside the Centre Left (Longmans Green & Co 1966), p. 3.

4. H. Pelling quoted in C. Benn, Keir Hardie (Richard Cohen 1997), p. 261.

5. G.D.H. Cole quoted ibid., p. 158.

6. B. Pearce and M. Woodhouse, A History of Communism in Britain (Bookmarks 1995), p. 21.

7. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 17.

8. Ibid., p. 20.

9. F. Brockway quoted in G. Brown, James Maxton (Mainstream 1986), p. 79.

10. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 51.

11. Ibid., p. 52.

12. Ibid., p. 55.

13. Ibid., p. 72.

14. Quoted in G. Brown, op. cit., p. 49.

15. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party: a Marxist History (Bookmarks 1988), p. 83.

16. Quoted in A. McKinlay and R.J. Morris, op. cit., p. 154.

17. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 115.

18. Ibid., p. 74.

19. G. Brown, op. cit., p. 92.

20. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 74.

21. Quoted in M. Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Penguin 1999), p. 106.

22. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 114.

23. G. Brown, op. cit., p. 208.

24. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 129.

25. Ibid., p. 115.

26. R.H. Dowse, op. cit., p. 129.

27. Ibid., p. 130.

28. B. Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s (Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 1.

29. H. Wicks, Keeping My Head (Socialist Platform 1992), p. 141.

30. B. Pimlott, op. cit., p. 43.

31. G. Foote, Labour’s Political Thought: a History (Macmillan 1997), p. 147.

32. See C. Harman, The Lost Revolution (Bookmarks 1982).

33. B. Pimlott, op. cit., p. 154.

34. Ibid., p. 50.

35. Ibid., p. 52.

36. M. Foot quoted in C. Harman, The Tribune ..., op. cit., p. 6.

37. Quoted in B. Pimlott, op. cit., p. 158.

38. C. Harman, The Tribune ..., op. cit., p. 7.

39. M. Foot quoted ibid, p. 7.

40. B. Pimlott, op. cit., p. 99.

41. M. Foot quoted in C. Harman, The Tribune ..., op. cit., p. 7.

42. Ibid., p. 7.

43. Quoted in T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, op. cit., p. 185.

44. M. Foot, Aneurin Bevan (Gollancz 1999), p. 288.

45. B. Pimlott, op. cit., p. 156.

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