Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Mark Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism, MacMillan, Basingstoke 1988, pp.239, £29.50.
The October Revolution drew on an international scale towards Bolshevism a wide range of radical groups and individuals. Despite their initial attraction to Bolshevism, some of them either adopted or continued with an orientation that was virulently hostile to working within bourgeois parliaments and reformist trade unions, and rejected any form of joint work with reformist parties. This book concerns itself with the groups of such a persuasion in Britain in the period of 1917 to 1945.
Along with organisations of a similar outlook, the Workers Socialist Federation, of which Sylvia Pankhurst was a leader, formed in 1920 the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) prior to the formation of the official CP, and attempted to win the Communist movement internationally to an anti-parliamentary strategy. Expelled from the Third International along with other such groups in various countries, it aligned itself with the Communist Workers International in 1921, only to fade away in the mid-1920s. Other anti-parliamentary groups, including one around the colourful Glasgow-based Anarchist Guy Aldred, formed in 1921 the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation. This group lasted through the Second World War, which it actively opposed, although not without fissures, Aldred splitting off in 1933 to form the United Socialist Movement.
Having left the Third International, Pankhurst’s group rapidly reconsidered its previously positive attitude towards Bolshevism. The New Economic Policy, of 1921 confirmed its opinion that the Soviet Union was now in fact capitalist with a new, ‘Communist’ ruling class. The Communists’ United Front tactic was seen as a rank capitulation to reformism. Grave doubts arose over Leninist norms of organisation. Aldred, whilst always critical of the Third International’s tactics, waited until the mid-1920s before considering the Soviet Union to be capitalist, and then he dabbled with Trotsky’s degenerated workers’ state theory in 1934.
Despite his sympathy towards the book’s subject, Shipway does not fail to draw attention to the more questionable aspects of the movement. During the first months of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 both the APCF and the USM made no criticisms of the Republican government. Shipway criticises Aldred for opening the pages of his journal during the Second World War to priests, parliamentary pacifists and the highly dubious Duke of Bedford, yet he approves of the anti-parliamentarians’ pacifist opposition to the war. He points to their failure to carry out a theoretical re-evaluation of the October Revolution – did it merely usher in capitalism? – yet considers this omission as justifiable. He does not comment on the APCF’s preference for Rosa Luxemburg’s crude under-consumptionist crisis theory as against the superior concepts expressed by Council Communist Paul Mattick.
One cannot judge the political validity of anti-parliamentary Communism by its failure as a movement; the entire history of Socialism appears to be a sad array of failures both heroic and ignoble. But the refusal of the anti-parliamentarians to work within trade unions or to countenance United Front work helped to keep the bulk of the working class under the influence of reformism. The problem was not the tactics of the Third International, but their application. Yet however much the anti-parliamentarian Communists were wrong, the main problem with the left in Britain has generally been opportunism, not ultra-leftism. Those who have touted left-speaking union bureaucrats or tried to apply United Front tactics regardless of their relevance to the situation should think twice before passing judgement.
Apart from its absurdly high price, the main problem with this book is the absence of oral evidence. Admittedly there can't be many survivors around, yet some interviews would have given an idea of the ‘feel’ of the movement. All the same, Anti-Parliamentary Communism sheds a welcome light upon a little-known corner of the labour movement in Britain.
Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003