Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Francis King and George Matthews (eds.), About Turn: The British Communist Party and the Second World War: The Verbatim Record of the Central Committee Meetings of 25 September and 2-3 October 1939, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1990, pp.318, £34.95

In the last year or two of his life Trotsky had several metaphors for the Communist International of Stalin and Dimitrov. He called it a corpse; but the Kremlin was to require this corpse to display a few more twitches of life before finally ordering its dissolution in 1943. Trotsky also called it a cesspit – a dunghill, to use the most direct English rendering. With this cloacal image Trotsky conveyed his profound disgust at the terminal degeneration of the body he had helped to found in 1919, at its ‘doglike servility’, at its transformation into a docile instrument of the Soviet bureaucracy, which in the autumn of 1939 sold it to Hitler “along with oil and manganese”. [1] This book shows in detail – word for word – what went on in the leadership of one section of that dunghill in belated response to the German-Soviet pact and the outbreak of the Second World War.

On 2 September 1939, the day before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain issued a manifesto urging a “struggle on two fronts”: for a “military victory over Fascism” and for the removal of the Chamberlain government. [2] General Secretary Harry Pollitt was set to work to write a pamphlet, How to Win the War, which came out on 14 September and was hailed by Rajani Palme Dutt, before he knew better and before the pamphlet was withdrawn, as “being one of the finest things that [Pollitt] had produced, so clearly and simply presented”. It was William Gallacher, Communist MP for West Fife, who revealed this statement of Dutt’s to the CC, no doubt to Dutt’s embarrassment; and it is not the least juicy plum in this 50-year-old pudding of a book.

But on 14 September something else happened: the Daily Worker received a press telegram from the Soviet Union saying it was a robber war on both sides. Pollitt suppressed this telegram because it was against the line of the 2 September manifesto. However, at the next day’s meeting of the party’s Political Bureau, Dutt, ever responsive to his master’s voice, said the line would have to be revised. Indeed, Stalin had already given orders to that effect, in a private chat with Dimitrov on 7 September; Dimitrov had handed the word down to the Comintern Secretariat, which had approved his theses on 9 September, instructing the Communist Parties of France, Britain, Belgium and the USA in particular that they must immediately correct their political line. Monty Johnstone points out in his Introduction to About Turn that neither the Executive Committee of the Comintern (which had not held a plenary meeting for four years) nor its Presidium (of which Pollitt was a full and Gallacher a candidate member) was in any way involved in this policy switch. Dimitrov had then briefed D.F. Springhall, the CPGB’s representative at Comintern headquarters. Springhall got back from Moscow on the evening of 24 September with the theses in his head; they were to follow him in a more tangible form soon afterwards.

Waiting for Springhall must have been a trying time for the leading British Stalinists. But the week that followed his brief report must have been agonising. The CC stood adjourned for a week, and in the meantime the Daily Worker’s line on the war was totally unclear. It published material so fence-sitting and so confused that much damage was done to the party’s credibility, even amongst its own members. This resulted from sharp differences between the three-man secretariat (Dutt, Springhall and William Rust) to whom Pollitt had voluntarily relinquished his responsibilities as General Secretary, and the rest of the Political Bureau (Pollitt, Gallacher, J.R. Campbell, Emile Burns and Ted Bramley).

When the CC resumed on 2 October, Dutt complained bitterly of this “complete incoherence worse either than the old line or the new”, told his comrades that “the duty of a Communist is not to disagree but to accept”, and, in a thinly veiled reference to Pollitt, warned that anyone who deserted now would be branded for his political life. Gallacher complained of the “rotten”, “dirty”, “unscrupulous”, and “opportunist” factional methods used by Dutt and his supporters, those “three ruthless revolutionaries”. They had shown “mean despicable disloyalty” and it was impossible for him to work with them. Campbell, ardent defender of the Moscow Trials and pitiless scourge of Trotskyism, said the CPGB would soon be indistinguishable from “the filthy rabble of Trotskyists”. The shipbuilding worker Finlay Hart objected to Dutt’s telling them to “accept or else”. Maurice Cornforth, philosopher-to-be, said he agreed with something he had once heard Pollitt say: the Soviet Union could do no wrong. “This is what we have to stick to”, he observed, adding that the new line didn’t mean cooperation with the Trotskyists, whose line, he was certain, would be “based on anti-Soviet slanders”. Rust said Gallacher saw himself as a kind of elder statesman who attended meetings when he felt like it, while Campbell was presenting British imperialism as a man-eating tiger turned vegetarian. Burns said Dutt’s opening statement had been “peculiarly low and dastardly”. Dutt and his supporters had used “the most vile factional methods”; they wanted as many as possible to vote against the theses so that the could be “represented as the real nucleus of the Comintern to carry the line forward in the British party”. They were attempting to clear themselves with Moscow by explaining how pure they were. Springhall said no comrade who had a conversation with Comrade Dimitrov could fail to learn something from him, and accused Campbell of thinking that the Soviet Union was only concerned to save its own skin.

Harry Pollitt showed himself as reluctant as Campbell to depart from the Popular Front line of the Comintern’s 1935 Seventh Congress. In politics, he said, there was neither friendship nor loyalty. He told Dutt: “You won’t intimidate me ... I was in this movement practically before you were born.” He had never heard a report so bankrupt and devoid of explanation as Springhall’s. Springhall had had no responsibility for drafting the theses: he was just a messenger boy (“what Strang was for Chamberlain”). “I was never an office boy”, said Pollitt. “If there is one thing that is clear it is that the fight against Fascism has disappeared and Fascism has now, because of its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, taken on a progressive role.” Soviet policy had antagonised important sections of the working class movement. The new line was in essence a betrayal of the labour movement’s struggle against Fascism – a word, he added bitterly, it was becoming unfashionable to mention. He himself wanted to “smash the Fascist bastards once and for all”.

So much for the first day of the resumed meeting. Little that was new was added on the second, final, day. John Gollan, Ted Bramley, Idris Cox and Peter Kerrigan expressed support for the new line, though Bramley wanted to know why there had been so little consultation by the Comintern (a point later re-emphasised by Gallacher); and Kerrigan (“I have always justified the Soviet Union in every action that the Soviet Union has taken”) said he had been flabbergasted when the Red Army marched into Poland. “If ... Comrade Pollitt is not convinced of the correctness of the line we will have to consider arranging for him to have a talk in Moscow”, suggested Cox, in words that still have a rather sinister ring 51 years later. Jimmy Shields, long a party functionary, said that “when the Soviet Union makes a move we should support it, whether it [such support] is considered to be mechanical or not”. The railway worker William Cowe said the Comintern was his “guiding light”. When the vote was taken, only Pollitt, Campbell and Gallacher voted against the new line – though Pollitt later asked, successfully, that Gallacher’s vote be recorded as being in favour.

Here is our closest, most intimate picture of the Stalinist method as it was used in Britain by these fearless fighters for Socialism, these battle-hardened cadres, these veterans of the Lenin School, these tenth-rate bureaucrats whom we watch here jockeying for the privilege of being recognised as Stalin’s trusted lieutenants in Britain. The picture I was given, when I joined the Young Communist League in 1942, and for the next 14 years, was of a party that had always been truly monolithic, where deep friendship and mutual loyalty had always prevailed. Pollitt and Dutt, we were given to understand, went together like Sohrab and Rustam, or port and nuts. The picture that emerges from this book is totally different, and helps to explain why Pollitt would never enter the Daily Worker building so long as Rust was its editor. (Perhaps it also helps to explain why Dutt left his private papers not to the CPGB, as one would have expected, but to the British Library.)

What also emerges, to an extraordinary degree, is the degree of criticism of, and even hostility to, the Soviet Union and the Comintern expressed in unguarded moments by people who, in public and for their own good reasons, were prepared to swallow those doubts and even forget later that they had ever entertained them. Dutt reports and reprobates this, in a striking passage where he speaks of “anti-International tendencies, a contemptuous attitude to the International, the kind of thing that began already from the time of the [Moscow] trials, talk of collapse of the International, talk of the Soviet Union following its interests”. These were “a reflection of enemy outlooks”. Even Rust, according to Gallacher, had complained that the CPGB was becoming the “propaganda department of the Soviet foreign office”.

And here surely is the key to the whole debate. For the British propaganda department of Stalin’s Foreign Office is precisely what they had by now become, after 15 years’ Stalinisation of their party. As T.A. Jackson had so presciently warned in 1924: “Our job is only to carry out all instructions at the double, and to stand to attention until the next order comes.” [3] The depth of the CPGB leaders’ uneasiness about their rôle, here revealed so poignantly and at the same time so farcically, shows Trotsky’s wisdom in advising his supporters, in the following June, to devote more attention to the rank and file of the Communist parties: “On the day that Moscow makes a half turn towards the democracies as a half friend, there will be a new explosion in the ranks of the CP. We must be ready to gain from it. I consider the possibilities in the CP very good despite the transitory radicalness of the CP, which cannot be for long.” [4]

Trotsky, not for the first time, was here over-optimistic about the immediate possibilities; but about Stalinism’s inherent volatility and instability he was absolutely right in the long term. The era of ‘explosions– is of course long over; Stalinism and its organisations are now decomposing before our eyes. Those who seek to profit politically from this process urgently need to learn a lot more about Stalinism’s past. This book makes a useful starting-points. [5]

Peter Fryer



1. Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, New York, Pathfinder Press, 1973, p.210.

2. The full text of this manifesto appears in 1939: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the War, ed. John Attfield and Stephen Williams, Lawrence and Wishart, 1984, pp.147-52.

3. Communist Review, Volume IV (1923-24), p.539.

4. Discussions with Trotsky: 12-15 June 1940, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, p.254. Trotsky was of course referring to the CPUSA, but his advice no doubt had more general application in the 1939-41 period.

5. Unfortunately the editing of this book is far from flawless. There are many fairly obvious mishearings or errors of transcription. The word ‘not’ should clearly come before the words ‘playing its part’ in line 19 on p.68; the word ‘decision’ in the bottom line of p.85 should, I imagine, be ‘discipline’; ‘work’ in line 8 of p.148 should undoubtedly be ‘war’; ‘Dutt’ in line 18 of p.150 seems to be an error for some other name; ‘loosen’ in line 34 of p.148 should perhaps be ‘lessen’; the word ‘Springhall’ should appear in bold type at the beginning of line 3 of p.188; ‘principal questions’ in line 27 of p.188 should probably be ‘principled questions’; ‘clearly’ in line 4 of p.202 should certainly be ‘clearer’; ‘Cox’ in line 6 of p.250 should plainly be ‘Kerrigan’; ‘don’t’ in line 19 of p.266 should surely have been deleted; lines 16-21 on p.292 seem to have strayed in from later in that section. There are similar errors elsewhere, not to mention a number of misprints. Nor are the Biographical Notes wholly reliable: eg Jim Roche ceased to be a CPGB full-timer in 1956, not 1957. To cap it all, the indexes are a disgrace: these lazily compiled and forbidding strings of page numbers virtually unrelieved by sub-headings are of little use to the serious student. For Lawrence and Wishart to charge £34.95 for such a shoddily edited book surpasses mere effrontery.

Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003