Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The Socialist League

Reg Groves, born in 1908, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the mid-1920s and was a member of the Balham Group, a number of CPGB members critical of the party leadership in the early 1930s. Contacting the Trotskyist movement in 1931, Groves was expelled from the CPGB in 1932 and was subsequently, a member of the Communist League and the Marxist League. In the meantime he wrote material for the Socialist League and was elected to its executive in 1936. After its dissolution Groves stood as the Labour candidate in the 1938 Aylesbury by-election – a story, in itself! His account of his break from Stalinism appears in his book The Balham Group, London, 1974. The following article was intended to be the preface to a collection of Socialist League documents, which, however, was not published.

The Socialist League held its inaugural meeting on Sunday 2 October 1932 at the Co-operative Hall, Leicester, on the day before the Labour Party’s annual Conference opened in the same town.

It was at Leicester, too, nearly five years later, that the Socialist League held its final Conference, and brought its short life to an end. Its brief existence had begun in the wake of world depression, and the ignominious fall of Britain’s Labour Government, and its life had spanned years of momentous events, uncertainty and confusion; years that saw German and Italian Fascism and Japanese militarism advancing triumphantly, saw the most powerful of Europe’s social democratic and communist parties routed and crushed without serious resistance, saw the causes of democracy and socialism everywhere in retreat. And, adding to the perplexities and discomforts of the time, saw an already repressive regime in Russia embarking on a series of government and ruling party purges, imprisonments, trials and executions accompanied by the vilification of revolutionaries and of revolutionary ideas and traditions not only in Russia but in every place where Russian-controlled communist parties operated.

The scale and pace of events – so cumulatively ominous in what was portended – may explain why some who helped to found the SL to promote a socialism based firmly on the needs, struggles and aspirations of the working people, free from obligations to, or entanglements with, capitalist parties, institutions and beliefs, and committed to a reaffirmation of the internationalism of the common peoples, should wilfully destroy the organisation they had created and go on to become champions of alliance and coalition with capitalist parties, and advocates of minor reform instead of socialist revolution.

Explain it, maybe, but not excuse it. Regarded by many then and since as merely another unsuccessful attempt to convert the British Labour Party to a leftwing policy, some of us looked upon the SL differently; and saw its dissolution as yet one more defeat for groups struggling for the survival and rehabilitation of revolutionary socialist ideas and ideals.

For the bureaucrats of social democracy and communism could on occasion be at one at least in this – the determination to rid themselves of the Marxist and social democrat left. Not that such groups were numerically important, but they did echo, though feebly, hopes and ideals deeply rooted in the thoughts and affections of labouring peoples everywhere, and inimical to all that official social democracy and communism had come to represent. To some of us, therefore, it seemed useful to renovate and restate these beliefs, before the flood waters of world war engulfed all and the last landmarks were washed away. The dissolution of the Socialist League can be regarded then, as an act of immolation on the altar of the “United Front”, or as an of murder. Judgement on this will depend upon the estimate made of the SL at the time when it was sidled by its leaders into the Unity Campaign – was it in process of becoming a group of revolutionary socialists or was it no more than a small, left-wing section of the Labour Party?

Towards the making of an accurate assessment, these documents and notes are offered. The limitations of the collection will be clear to everyone – it is a personal one, accumulated day-by-day at the time, and put together in haphazard fashion for use and reference in current campaigns and controversies; it is too factional, and here and there too local, too much of one area. It may, however, catch up the mood of the time all the better because of such limitations, and for this reason everything in the box has been included. For greater clarity and completeness, some missing key documents have been replaced by copies.

To understand the genesis of the SL it will help to know something of the structure of the British Labour Party, and a little of its history.

From its foundation in 1900 (as the Labour Representation Committee) the Labour Party was a federation of trade unions and socialist societies, allied to promote labour representation and legislation in Parliament and on municipal bodies.

Its organisation was made up of a yearly conference, a national executive and local committees, all consisting of representatives from the affiliated unions and societies. Not until 1918 were individual LP membership sections established, as part of the party’s organisation in the Parliamentary electoral districts. But local and national control of the party continued to be by local councils of delegates, by a national delegate conference, and by executive committees and officials elected or appointed by these bodies. The affiliated trade union members outnumbered the individual members by around six to one – union votes (in the hands of union leaders) controlled the annual. conference decisions, the policy of the party, the, elections to the executive committee; union money constituted the major part of the party’s funds.

The individual membership sections were organised primarily in wards, that is, electoral sub-districts; and were often little more than fund-raising, subscription-collecting, vote-canvassing groups. Active political life was to be found mostly in the socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party, by far the largest and most important of which was the Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893 and chief promoter of the socialist-trade union alliance that brought the Labour Party into existence.

As the active partner in the political life of the movement, the ILP stimulated debate and discussion in the movement, and its addiction to, the promotion of specific policies brought frequent clashes with the Parliamentary and trade union leaders.

With Labour’s electoral victory in 1929, when, with 287 seats won it became the largest single party in the House of Commons, and took office though without an absolute majority over the two other parties, conflict between the LP leaders and the ILP grew. As industrial stagnation spread with world depression, and unemployment in Britain rose to two million, then to nearly three; and, as the Labour Cabinet and most of its MPs clung to the economic orthodoxies of the very capitalism that was in collapse, and retreated abjectly from even minor reforms and relief measures, the more intransigent ILPers in the House, and a few rebel Labour MPs, spoke and voted against the Government, and were roundly abused and denounced for it by all the Cabinet Ministers and almost all the Labour MPs.

Financial crisis, manufactured and manipulated by the very people the Government were trying to placate, and connived at or acquiesced to by Prime Minister MacDonald and Chancellor of the Exchequer Snowden, split the Cabinet, with more than half the Ministers still prepared to abase themselves before capital and enforce the cuts in living standards and social services demanded by British and foreign financiers, and Liberal and Conservative politicians. In August 1931, the Labour Government ended with barely a whimper, when MacDonald and Snowden and a few others formed a coalition government with the two other parties to enforce the cuts.

An apologetic, confused, and hopelessly compromised Labour Party met a crushing defeat at the polls in October, its MPs reduced to 46. Five ILPers only were returned, all intransigents, and these rejected attempts to curtail their right to speak and vote freely, particularly as these attempts were made by the very men who had supported and applauded the MacDonald administration, and who were now trying to refurbish their reputations by bawling abuse at the renegade leaders. At its conference held in 1932, the ILP decided by 255 votes to 120 to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The dissenting minority seceded from the ILP, determined to remain in the LP.

What had been wrong, they argued, was the MacDonald leadership and its policy of slow, piece-by-piece reform – then known as “gradualism”, though some called it “MacDonaldism”, thereby diverting criticism and blame from themselves and their colleagues on to the departed leaders. What was needed to make certain that gradualism had departed with MacDonald was a campaign to win over the LP to a detailed, socialist policy for every public problem and every economic and financial eventuality, and so commit any future Labour Government in advance to a socialist programme. Socialism was, of course, variously interpreted, but to most of those urging such policies on the labour movement it meant State control and planning in varying proportions; and at that time planners, with their import boards, export boards, investment boards, public corporations and the rest, were finding encouragement in the reported successes of Russia’s Five Year Plan, and were to find further support for then arguments in Roosevelt’s New Deal Middle class socialists, holding such views. wanted an organisation in the LP to fill the gap left by the departed ILP.

Suitable organisations seemed to be at hand, ready made for the situation: the New Fabian Research Bureau, to research and present discussion material on policy, with Clement Attlee as Chairman; and the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda, with powerful trade union chief Ernest Bevin as Chairman, to disseminate in pamphlet and lecture form the results of such material through local branches, had been founded in the winter of 1930/31 by GDH Cole and others. By not sponsoring or nominating Parliamentary candidates nor putting critical resolutions to LP Conference, Cole and his colleagues hoped that the SSIP would avoid the conflict with authority that had driven the ILP from the LP.

Cole’s own account is relevant here: “A section of the ILP which desired to remain inside the Labour Party called on the SSIP to abandon the NFRB to join them in making a new inclusive socialist society, affiliated to the Labour Party, to replace the ILP … The NFRB … refusing to become involved in ‘politics’ outside the sphere of research, maintained its separate existence … SSIP, on the other hand, being a propagandist body with branches, was placed in a difficulty, for it either had to come to terms with the ex-ILP group or to enter into rivalry with them in a field in which there could hardly be room for both to do good work. SSIP accordingly agreed to negotiate; but difficulties at once arose. The ex-ILP group was determined on having a body which would be affiliated to the Labour Party and free to engage in Parliamentary activities; and it was also determined not to accept Ernest Bevin as Chairman of any combined body, and to insist on Frank Wise … I regarded it as indispensable to carry Bevin into the new body … I accordingly voted against the fusion of SSIP with the Wise group; but I was outvoted and agreed to go with the majority – a yielding of which I was soon to repent … At the time, however, I tried to make the best of a bad business by giving full support to the Socialist League; I spoke hopefully at its inaugural Conference at Leicester and for a year served on the Executive. By the end of the year a number of us had become convinced that it was heading for disaster very like that which had befallen the ILP by putting forward a programme of its own in opposition to that of the Labour Party, instead of trying to work for improving the official Labour Party programme. I resigned …”

The day after the inauguration of the SL, the LP Conference opened. Sorties by members of the new organisation brought modest successes.

Sir Charles Trevelyan, who had resigned from the Labour Government in protest at its supineness, persuaded the Conference to decide “that the leaders of the next Labour Government and the Parliamentary Labour Party be instructed by the National Conference that, on assuming office, either with or without power, definite socialist legislation must be immediately promulgated, and that the party should stand or fall in the House of Commons on the principles in which it has faith”.

A policy report from the Executive on currency and finance, moved by Hugh Dalton, recommended public ownership of the Bank of England, but omitted reference to joint stock banks. Frank Wise moved an amendment that joint stock banks be nationalised as well. Seconded by Stafford Cripps, this was carried by a narrow majority. Reports on the “socialisation” of transport and power were withdrawn by the Executive for further consideration after protests from delegates that no provision had been made in the plans for workers’ representation on the governing boards.

At its first National Conference, held in Derby at Whitsun, 1933, the SL began shaping its constitution and rules, and its programme for the campaign in the LP. At Hastings, in October, SL spokesmen secured support among the delegates to the LP Conference for a number of its proposals. One theme, discussed at the SL’s Conference, and dealt with frequently by Stafford Cripps in lectures and publications, was brought forward by him at the LP Conference – the next Labour Government was instructed to proceed at once to abolish the House of Lords, and to pass into law an Emergency Powers Act, giving it authority to “takeover or regulate the financial machine, and to put into force any measures that the situation may require for the immediate control or socialisation of industry and for the safeguarding of the food supply and other necessities”; to revise Parliamentary procedure “so that a rapid transition to socialism may be carried through constitutionally, and dictatorship avoided”; and “an economic plan for industry, finance and foreign trade designed rapidly to end the present system and thus to abolish unemployment and poverty”.

This was not opposed directly by the Executive, nor was it rejected by the Conference. It, and a whole series of other resolutions – for collaboration “with Russia and other socialist Governments in order to form a nucleus for international socialist co-operation”; that, “in the event of a Parliamentary Labour majority, the Government should immediately proceed to bring into operation the socialist programme on which it has been elected”; that the Executive should prepare for the next General Election, “a concise declaration of the measures which a Labour Government will endeavour to place on the Statute Book” and “produce at once a short and readable publication for popular use outlining the definite party policy in plain and unmistakeable terms” – were referred to the Executive for them to act upon. If it was plain that the labour movement was determined to commit its leaders to definite policies, it was also plain that the Executive and the leaders of the party were playing for time. It should be noted that in the electoral holocaust of October 1931, practically all the party leaders and members of the former Government had lost their seats – Cripps, Attlee and the aged Lansbury alone survived to lead the tiny group of Labour MPs against the National Government.

In the months that followed, the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany; Japanese militarism continued its expansionist activities unchecked; and in Vienna, Austrian social democratic workers went down fighting against the forces of the Austrian dictator Dolfüss, and stirred their fellow workers in the rest of Europe as no other event had done for years. In July 1934, French socialists and communists agreed to form a United Front; the Spanish parties followed suit in September. In Britain, proposals from the Communist Party for a United Front were rejected by the LP; but an uneasy agreement for united action on specific issues was reached between the ILP and the CP with the CP still applying the old tactic of “the United Front from below”, making plain its determination to split away as many ILP members as it could. (Not for some months did the British communists succeed in adjusting themselves adequately to the changes in Russian policy to United Fronts with anyone and everyone and at any price. Pollitt’s Report of January 1935, to the Central Committee probably marks the beginning, of complete change-over.)

Unemployment, and the treatment of the unemployed, remained a major issue, but in the struggle against the “National” Government’s treatment of the unemployed, LP leaders and trade union chiefs played little or no part – it took place in the streets, and it was rank-and-file socialists and trade unionists of all sections or of none who waged the war against poverty and unemployment, and against the provocative parades of Mosley's Fascists.

Cripps, Chairman of the SL following the death in November 1933, of Frank Wise, told the SL’s 1934 Whitsun Conference at Leeds, that the League’s function was now “to concentrate upon the general direction and tempo of policy rather than the detailed steps that may be necessary to achieve it” and the Conference went on to discuss, amend and approve the SL’s programme statement, Forward to Socialism. Its position now more coherently stated, its membership beginning to rise – it had reached 2,000 in the previous year – the SL prepared to make its most formidable assault of all on the policy of gradualism at the Labour Party Conference, being held at Southport in October 1934.

No less than 75 amendments (reduced at Conference to 12 composite ones) were tabled to the Executive Committee’s “comprehensive and concise statement of policy”, For Socialism and Peace. The party leaders – all former followers of MacDonald – had regained their confidence, and were now firmly in control of the Party apparatus, the big unions were backing them with votes, and the SL amendments were overwhelmingly defeated. Of key policy amendments, the one on Labour–s Aims went down by 2,146,000 to 206,000; the one on international policy, put to the vote without discussion, and defeated on a show of hands, would have been as heavily beaten had a card vote been taken; and an amendment concerned with compensation to owners of industries taken over by the State was defeated by 2,118,000 to 149,000. Labour’s policy, if now more specific, was in essence unchanged. MacDonald had departed but in the ranks of Labour his soul went marching on.

It was in the country that the Government met resistance; and new Government plans for dealing with the long-term unemployed, due to come into operation on 5 January 1935, met with such a fury of protest and so widespread a public outcry that they were withdrawn after a few weeks. While most of Labour’s leaders looked on, or disapproved, local socialists, communists, co-operators and trade unionists, together with the unemployed, led the protests; like many others, the SL members were busy in all this, and learning at least some of their revolutionary socialism in action; inside the SL’s organisation, at branch discussions, in public debate, and at its National Conference, the SL was defining its political attitude with increasing certainty.

At the SL’s 1935 Whitsun Conference, held at Bristol, the major debate was on the darkening international situation, and the growing danger of war, though time was spent also on SL policies for and activities in the trade unions, the labour parties, the co-operatives and trades councils, and among the youth. During 1934, the Russian Government had abandoned its hostility to the League of Nations. and had joined it, seeking allies and supporters among governments and public opinion in the non-fascist countries. The SL policy resolution, published subsequently as Forward Against War, whilst urging the widest possible support for Russia, distinguished quite specifically between the policy that might be right for the Russian Government, and the policy to be pursued by the workers in capitalist countries. This distinction (made even more sharply at the SL’s Conference the following year) had much relevance to subsequent events.

The SL had decided on a series of conferences and public meetings at places all over the country to arouse the labour movement to awareness of the dangers of the international situation; and to win support for SL policy of resistance to capitalist war. As Italy’s threats to Abyssinia grew more menacing, the conferences assumed an additional urgency, and were everywhere well attended. The response in London was startling – due partly to the London Trades Council’s decision to support the conference, but mainly to the urgency of the situation, for the London Trades Council’s subsequent withdrawal of its support appeared to make no difference at all to the attendance. Over 1,500 delegates from union branches, co-operative guilds, labour parties and socialist societies, packed the large Memorial Hall, and two ‘overflow’ halls, scores being turned away, unable to gain admission. Main opposition to SL policy on war resistance and on the Abyssinian crisis was led by the CP, which, in obedience to the shift in Russian Government policy, was now in favour of the League of Nations’ collective action against Italy.

So was the Labour Party. At the Brighton Labour Party Conference in October, Hugh Dalton moved the official resolution on the crisis. It called on the Government, “in co-operation with other nations represented at the Council and Assembly of the League to use all the necessary measures provided by the Covenant to prevent Italy’s unjust and rapacious attack upon the territory of a fellow member of the League” and pledged Labour’s support of such measures. It meant support for the Government, even to the point of war, and ultimately meant acceptance of increased armaments for Britain.

Opposition to it was voiced by Lord Ponsonby, who had resigned as party leader in the House of Lords, by the aged George Lansbury, who was about to resign as party leader in the House of Commons, and by Cripps, who had resigned from the party Executive in order to speak against Executive policy. Lansbury and Ponsonby opposed on pacifist argument, Cripps on the lines of SL policy. He pleaded with the delegates ”not to ordain that the labour movement shall join without power in the responsibility for capitalist and imperialist war that sanctions may entail” but to achieving “the defeat of that very capitalism and imperialism which is represented in this country by our class-enemies masquerading under the title of a ‘National’ Government”. Mellor, too, spoke for SL policy, closing his speech with the words: “there are times when it is well to remember that the positive action of fighting your enemy at home is greater in value than the negative disaster of defending your home enemy abroad. Our enemy is here.”

In the event, the critics were amply justified. A few days later, Italian invasion of Abyssinia began: Labour pressed the Government to secure League of Nations action. The Government went through the motions of doing so, whilst in reality conniving at Italian victory. In November, virtuously parading as champions of collective security, the Government went to the country, and emerged from the election with a substantial majority in Parliament. By May 1936, Mussolini had completed the conquest and annexation of Abyssinia.

Discussions and agitations over the war were by no means all, or even the greater part, of SL members’ activities at the time. They were busy during the General Election, and in local and national campaigns over a score of good causes, including unemployment, and the claim of the miners for a pay rise. In the movement itself, the SL can be seen in its records discussing such matters as the need for more democracy in the London Labour Party, the role of trades councils in the struggle for socialism, and the need to create a socialist youth movement. At the 1936 Whitsun Conference at Hanley, a much-strengthened statement of SL policy on war was overwhelmingly supported by the delegates, against CP-style amendments and arguments for peace fronts and Popular Fronts and all the latest trappings of communist policy. A National Council resolution noted “the significant change in the immediate policy of the Communist Party of Great Britain” towards the Labour Party as a strong argument for “the unification of all the forces of the working class”. The increasingly independent role of the SL in the struggles of the time was the subject of another very important resolution.

In July the Spanish Civil War broke out and it was soon clear that General Franco’s forces were being helped by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; and that the Spanish Republican Government was being refused the right to buy arms.

A policy of “non-intervention” was proposed by the French “Popular Front” Government, led by the socialist Leon Blum, and by the British Government, in which Eden was Foreign Secretary. Supposedly aimed at preventing the Fascist powers from sending arms, plans, equipment and men to Franco, instead it stopped supplies only to the Spanish Government. Protests grew.

A resolution denouncing this policy was discussed at the SL Executive Committee. Cripps, returning from a meeting with Government Ministers, surprised everyone by supporting non-intervention. It would, he thought, stop supplies reaching Franco’s forces. “I have Eden’s word on it”, he added. The other members of the EC did not share Cripps’ faith in Eden’s word and the resolution was carried. (The two draft resolutions, one by Horrabin, the other by Groves, were presented on different occasions, but cannot be accurately dated. Both represent a fair approximation of the general view in the SL). At this or another EC meeting, Groves presented a draft for a leaflet on Spain, A Workers’ or a Fascist Spain?, which was distributed in large numbers throughout the country. One vital amendment only was made in the draft-lines 7 ,8 and 9 in paragraph seven read originally: “… smash the militarists so that they and their fellows may rule Spain. The defeat of the militarists is a necessary part of the struggle to win full economic and political power for the Spanish workers and peasants.” The words “afterwards” and “a necessary preliminary” give a different tone indeed to the passage – and indicate a difference of policy that was the subject of bitter controversy in Spain and elsewhere in subsequent months.

Jack Winocour’s article in the October Socialist defined the Spanish situation from a revolutionary standpoint. Its appearance there; other articles such as the ones Fabianism and the Class Struggle and Workers of the World Unite; the more agitational, more rank-and-file and trade union orientation of the paper, as compared with its predecessor The Socialist Leaguer; the policies expounded in the paper and on public platforms, are evidence of the extent to which the SL was fast growing into a consciously revolutionary socialist group, along the lines laid down in the Resolution on the Present Situation in the Labour Movement and the Role of the Socialist League at the SL Conference earlier in the year at Hanley. It was at this time, too, that the SL’s National Council established contact with the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity, and gave support to the Bureau's call for an independent investigation into the Moscow Trials.

Enthusiastic demonstrations were held during the late summer in support of the Spanish Republican Government and the Spanish workers. But, despite the support for the Spanish people’s cause shown by the mass of Labour supporters, the Trades Union Congress, in September, voted in favour of the pro-Franco policy of non-intervention, by 3,029,006; to 51,000; and at the Edinburgh Labour Party Conference in October, 1,836,000 votes were cast for non-intervention and only 519,000 against.

It may have been the shock of these votes-together with the defeat of a resolution calling for acceptance of the CP’s latest application for affiliation to the Labour Party, by 1,728,000 to 592,000,and of another asking for a meeting of “representatives of all working class bodies to bring about a United Front” by 1,805,000 to 435,000 – that led to the talks between the ILP, CP, and SL on a joint national campaign for unity in the labour movement.

The evidence is contradictory. Michael Foot dates the talks as commencing “soon after the (Edinburgh) Conference was over”; Ralph Miliband and R.E. Dowse place them as commencing “early in 1936” but give no sources for the statement; ILP Secretary John McNair offers no date at all; and when Cripps and Mellor first reported the negotiations to the governing bodies of the SL, they spoke of negotiations having “followed the Edinburgh Conference”. It is more likely that informal conversations had been going on for some months before Edinburgh, and that the decisions of the Conference had given impetus and urgency to the talks.

In the preliminary talks, some of which were attended by Aneurin Bevan, Cripps and Mellor represented the SL, Maxton and Brockway the ILP, and Pollitt and Dutt the CP. The meetings took place, says McNair, in Cripps’ chambers in the Middle Temple, at which “there were frequently serious differences between the ILP and the CP which were only surmounted by the pertinacity and legal skill of Cripps. They were not finally solved but were at least smoothed over …

Serious differences existed, too, between the SL and the CP. In acting as arbitrator to the conflicting parties, Cripps jettisoned the policy of the SL; as in his legal practice, he passed from one brief to another, from a brief for revolutionary socialism to a new brief for the United Front, without any noticeable difficulty. But it was not just the interests of clients involved here – but principles and policies affecting many people. The price paid for putting expediency above principle was high, the return for the socialist cause, nil. The SL became involved in the erection of an unreal façade of unity, behind which the brutal realities of Russian Government policy operated unseen and unchecked; and the SL found itself recruited into a conspiracy of silence about the misdoings of the Russian Government in which had already been enlisted an impressive array of British intellectuals – writers, publishers, academics and politicians.

In this connection, the documents of the Unity Campaign, with their “addendums of explication” are most revealing. It should be remembered that these were seen only by the Executives of the three organisations. Members and supporters and the public, would see only the Unity Manifesto with its deceptions and ambiguities.

The negotiations on the Unity Campaign were kept from the SL membership and governing committees until almost complete agreement had been reached. Executive and National Council members were swiftly embroiled in hurried, amending discussions of the unity document, and any consideration of the campaign as a whole or its implications and consequences for the SL was brushed aside. The procedure at the National Council meeting of 7 and 8 November 1936, provided a good example of this. There were initial protests from provincial members at the failure of the Executive to secure Council approval for the campaign before commencing negotiations. These were heard, then the meeting went on to examine the unity document. No discussion took place at all on the merits of the campaign, nor on its likely consequences for the SL. Cripps argued his new brief, Mellor, Brailsford, Mitchinson, Horrabin and others of the Executive supported him. The provincial members were almost all uneasy about the proposed campaign, but were manoeuvred into a detailed discussion of the unity agreement, and so into an implied approval of the campaign itself.

As the members of the National Council sat debating the Unity Campaign and other matters, outside in the streets some 2,000 Hunger Marchers from Scotland, Wales and the North of England were walking in several processions, accompanied by supporters, bands, and banners dark against the winter sky, to Hyde Park. 200,000 Londoners were there to greet the cloth-capped, shabby, cheerful ghosts, comrades of a decade and a half of struggle for bread and work and dignity. Some found ironic humour in the sight of Clem Atlee, Labour’s Parliamentary leader, speaking to the vast crowd from the same platform as Wal Hannington, the communist leader of the unemployed; in the fact that the official London Trades Council organised the reception for the marchers, and that in the Park and the procession, the banners of labour parties, co-operatives, trade unions and SL branches mingled with those of the CP and ILP.

A false impression of unanimity on the SL’s governing bodies given to branches by circulars from the centre brought belated resistance – the secrecy imposed had prevented earlier revolt. An unofficial resistance committee emerged in London; and Groves sent the circular to all branches that made it known that there was not unanimity, and that the more serious problems of the proposed Unity Campaign remained undebated.

When the Special SL Conference on the Unity Campaign assembled in London on 17 January 1937, it was already certain that if it endorsed the unity proposals, the League would be disaffiliated from the LP, and membership of the SL made incompatible with LP membership. It was becoming clear, too, that should this happen, Cripps and others had decided that they would urge the dissolution of the SL. What was not known then, nor in the months up to the final Whitsun Conference, was that the proposal for the dissolution of the SL had originated with the CP, and pressed by that organisation as being in the best interests of the Unity Campaign, Had that been known, there can be no doubt at all that many more Executive and National Council members would have stood out against the Cripps policy, and that the National Conference would have voted it down.

As it was, the policy was approved by only a minority of the Conference delegates, 56 voting for it, 35 against, with 23 abstentions. The typewritten leaflet issued to delegates by the Balham and Tooting Branch contained a suggestion whereby the campaign could go on, and the SL survive. Brushed aside by the. leadership, this was to be the policy adopted a few months later, to save the individual SL members from expulsion from the Labour Party – but that was after the CP had achieved their purpose, and shut down the SL.

The rest of the story told in the documents, can be briefly summarised. On 18 January 1937, the day after the SL’s Special Conference, the Unity Campaign was launched. On 27 January the SL was disaffiliated by the LP Executive. In March, the LP declared membership of the SL incompatible with membership of the Labour Party. The SL now had either to retreat from the Unity Campaign, or face the wholesale expulsion of its members from the LP. It now announced its dissolution, a decision that was endorsed at the final SL conference in Leicester, at Whitsun, 1937.

When the LP then forbade its members on pain of expulsion to take part in the Unity Campaign as individuals, the CP suggested that the former SL members should continue working within the LP, and withdraw from public participation in the Unity Campaign. The national and area Unity Campaign Committees would be dissolved; the ILP and CP would go their separate ways once more. This could have been done in January, and the SL saved. But the CP wanted to be rid of the SL, with its dangerous potential as a centre for revolutionary socialist ideas, and it had succeeded. The CP, and many of the prominent supporters of the United Front of working class organisations were now abandoning that United Front in favour of a Popular Front of communist, socialist and bourgeois politicians, with a policy moderate enough to accommodate almost everyone.

By the following year, the CP and its allies were urging people to vote Liberal rather than Labour in some of the Parliamentary by-elections taking place; and Cripps and others who had founded the SL to attack gradualist and reformist policies, were advocating coalition with capitalist as well as Communist politicians for collective action abroad against the Fascist powers and for moderate reform at home.

William Mellor, who with Cripps and several others, had founded Tribune as a socialist weekly and had been its editor since its beginning in January 1937, did not go along on these policies with the others. According to Michael Foot: “More wary or doctrinaire than they about the idea of combination with Communist or capitalist allies, he could not support the Popular Front strategy … But there was another cause of the quarrel. The Tribune board had decided on a much closer association with the Left Book Club and both Cripps and the controllers of the Left Book Club were agreed that a different editor was required to make Tribune’s fortunes prosper in the new circumstances. So Mellor was fired by Cripps in a brusque manner that left many hard feelings … Thereafter, until the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, Tribune became much more uncritically pro-communist in its political line than it had ever been previously or was ever again afterwards.”

John McNair has since revealed that in the privacy of the Unity Campaign Committee, Mellor at first opposed the proposal to dissolve the SL, saying that the dissolution of the League would be a victory for the right wing of the LP, who wanted to be rid of separately organised left organisations. “Time showed how right he was,” wrote McNair. “At that moment, however, a united Communist Party and a divided League, decided the issue and subsequently the Council of the League decided to dissolve … The extinction of the League was a severe blow to the forces working for socialism in the labour movement.”

Had Mellor opposed dissolution in the SL itself, his great influence would have swung sufficient opinion against it to have saved the organisation. But he did not, and the SL went out of existence. “Many were to regret that decision in later years,” wrote Michael Foot, one of the younger SL members at the time of dissolution, “when the left in the party, robbed by their own act of any effective organisation, found themselves hopelessly pitted as individuals against the Executive machine. But Cripps, with the full support of Bevan and Mellor, dominated the League and got his way. Even in the short run, the policy had no success …”

Michael Foot is unique among the prominent survivors of the SL in having remained on the Left. Others like Cripps, Mitchinson, Barbara Castle, trod the path to high office and power, in an LP bereft of an organised left wing. But there was more to the SL at the time of its obliteration than it being a left group inside the LP; and had it survived it might have maintained and renewed the ideas and ideals of revolutionary socialism into the post-war world, and passed its flag on to the new generations, the wandering, questing children of protest.

Reg Groves

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003