Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2
Politics of J.T. Murphy
J.T. MURPHY was a significant figure on the British left between 1917 and 1936. He was a leading activist in the shop stewards movement of the First World War, and subsequently the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, and finally the Socialist League in the 1930s. Sadly, Murphy’s career demonstrates how a fierce fighter for revolution, workers’ democracy and Socialism from below became a passionate advocate of Stalinism and Popular Frontism. Murphy is of particular interest to readers of this journal for, as a functionary of the Communist International, he was directly instrumental in the consolidation of Stalinism and its imposition on the national Communist parties. It was Murphy who moved the expulsion of Boris Souvarine, the French defender of Trotsky, from the Comintern in 1926, and the resolution which removed Trotsky himself from the Comintern Executive in 1927.
Murphy was born into the Sheffield working class in 1888. He was strongly influenced by reading Marx and by the Syndicalist ideas of the ‘Great Unrest’ of the early years of the twentieth century. As an activist in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, he became involved in the shop stewards movement which from 1915 fought against wartime dilution, the undermining of craft skills, and the conscription of skilled engineers. The strongholds of the agitation were on Clydeside, where the workers’ committee was led by members of the SLP, the small, intransigent dual unionist organisation influenced by the ideas of Daniel DeLeon, and in Sheffield.
The Shop Stewards and Workers Committee Movement was formally established in early 1917. Its suspicion of leadership was incarnated in the designation of its leading body as the National Administrative Council. It stood in theory for the overthrow of capitalism. Its practice was defensive struggle to maintain trade union controls in the workshops which spilled over into opposition to the state’s prosecution of the war, but never properly confronted the issue of ending it. The movement was largely limited to the skilled workers, and to the large engineering centres.
As a member of the NAC from August 1917, and of the SLP shortly thereafter, Murphy wrote the SSWCM’s credo, The Workers’ Committee, which analysed the weakness of union organisation and officialdom. It urged the creation of rank-and-file bodies, elected in the workshops but linking up across the industry, as a means of overcoming the lack of democracy and centralisation of the union leadership. For all its virtues, the statement remained within a Syndicalist problematic, circumventing the issues of political power and the capitalist state.
Perceiving the soviets as the realisation of their aspirations, the SSWCM leaders played a key rôle in the creation of the CPGB in 1920–21. After returning from Moscow, where he attended the first Comintern congress in 1920 and eagerly embraced Lenin’s prescriptions for Britain, Murphy was involved in the formation of the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions, which absorbed an SSWCM now severely weakened by the postwar downturn. He headed the party’s industrial departments, and became the British correspondent of Pravda. Although he joined his former SLP comrades, Arthur McManus and Tom Bell, in criticising the implementation of the Dutt-Pollitt report dedicated to the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CPGB, Murphy was to be a loyal advocate of the party’s twists and turns throughout the decade, with only the occasional deviation. He was in the forefront of the campaign against Trotskyism in 1925–26.
After the General Strike, Murphy spent two years in Moscow as the CPGB’s representative on the Comintern’s Executive. His final transformation into a Stalinist functionary was confirmed by the attack on the CPGB he co-authored with Robin Page Arnot at the behest of the Comintern dignitary Otto Kuusinen. They rubbished the party’s failure to criticise the union lefts in the aftermath of the General Strike. Murphy’s assault on a policy in which he had been deeply involved in creating provoked severe, perhaps fatal, strains on his relationship with other British leaders. He came in for further excoriation in 1927 when he suggested that the National Left-Wing Movement, a coalition of CPGB and Labour Party members fighting Labour’s exclusion of Communists, should be transformed into a ‘third party’.
After intensive experience in key Comintern bodies as they underwent assimilation into the apparatus of the Soviet state, Murphy returned to Britain in 1928 a fanatical supporter of the ‘Third Period’ with its disastrous ‘class against class’ policy, and its denunciation of the Labour leaders as ‘Social Fascists’. Sensing Soviet disapproval – for reasons that finally remain obscure – Murphy became embroiled in a dispute with the CPGB over his call for a campaign for British government credits to facilitate the Soviet Union’s purchase of British goods. Somewhat mysteriously – although the party was at its lowest ebb ever – he resigned, and was ritually expelled. The whirligig of time wreaks its revenge. From Prinkipo, Trotsky wrote to his British supporter Reg Groves: ‘I have learned that Murphy is expelled as “a near Trotskyist”. What does this wonderful story mean?’
Murphy speedily established himself in the ‘Social Fascist’ Labour Party and the Socialist League, which was formed in the summer of 1932 by those members of the Independent Labour Party who wished to remain in the Labour Party after the ILP disaffiliated, and Labour lefts. By 1934, he had become the League’s National Secretary. His move to the right roughly paralleled the changing policies of the party he had deserted. By 1936, with the Soviet Union in the League of Nations, he was supporting military sanctions against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, a minority voice on the right of the Socialist League. In the summer of that year, he quit both his secretaryship and the League itself to prosecute the Popular Front as the full-time organiser of the People’s Front Propaganda Committee, recently set up by Liberals and ‘progressive’ capitalists. Murphy strongly supported the Second World War, and maintained his admiration of Stalin in a panegyric published in 1945. He renounced Marxism in the 1950s, and died in 1965 at the age of 76.
Ralph Darlington’s book provides the first full-length account of Murphy’s life. As such, it adds only a little to our existing knowledge of his formative years. Both his activities and their context – the Sheffield engineering industry, the ethos and policies of the ASE, the politics of that city’s labour movement prior to 1917 – are explained in a cursory manner. It is intriguing that Murphy joined a political party only when he was almost 30 years of age. Most of the important shop steward leaders, and certainly those who went into the CPGB, were long-standing members of the SLP or the British Socialist Party, organisations which contributed so much to the political feeling of the Marxist left in the years preceding the Russian Revolution. It is inadequate to dismiss the complexities of the BSP’s attitude towards trade unionism as ‘contempt’ (p. 12). It recruited leading shop stewards, such as Fred Shaw, Willie Gallacher, Harry Pollitt and Harry McShane, not to speak of John Maclean. Contrary to what is said here, Nellie Connole’s Leaven of Life: The Story of George Henry Fletcher (1961) implies that Ted Lismer, the leading ASE steward in Sheffield and a close comrade of Murphy’s, was a member of the BSP. So of course were the Sheffield union activists and later CPGB cadres Sam Elsbury and George Fletcher.
If the SLP had ‘no real base’ in Sheffield (p. 12), it had a branch after 1906 and again from 1912, whilst its paper, The Socialist, was readily available throughout this period. There is an interesting note on the Sheffield branch and the problems it faced in the issue of January 1915. According to Connole’s account, it was an SLPer, Jimmy Bowns, who initially forged links between Sheffield and the leading Clydeside stewards McManus (SLP) and Gallacher (BSP). At least one Sheffield SLPer, Lawrence Smith, was jailed for his opposition to the war. There may be problems with the availability of the materials required to pursue these matters, and Connole’s book certainly needs checking. But more attention to Murphy’s activities in the years and the environment in which his ideas developed would have made for a richer narrative, and a deeper grasp of his emerging politics.
Of course, this was the great age of Socialist pedagogy, and many young workers immersed themselves almost completely in the activities of the Plebs League and the struggle for independent working-class education. It is plausible that Murphy, something of an autodictat, recoiled, like others, from the shadow that Henry Mayers Hyndman cast over the BSP, and from the sectarianism, doctrinal disputation and dual unionism of the SLP to devote himself to the Labour College movement. Despite its potential importance to the formation of somebody he terms ‘an organic intellectual’ and ‘a worker intellectual polymath’ (p. xviii), the author does not pursue this avenue. He addresses the Labour Colleges only in passing in relation to their dispute with the CPGB in 1924. Yet together with his union, this movement was one of the few constants through Murphy’s life. It was Plebs, the journal of the National Council of Labour Colleges, which first announced Murphy’s ideas to a wider audience. It published his article Industrial Organisation, an early draft of The Workers Committee, in February 1917. In the very different world of 1959, the same journal recorded Murphy’s lifelong allegiances: ‘AEU Highgate with J.T. Murphy in the chair have started a class on automation.’ (Plebs, January 1959, p. 24)
The personal and intellectual influences on Murphy excite minimal curiosity in this text. Recent work of some relevance, such as Logie Barrow and Ian Bullock’s Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880–1914 (1996), is not drawn on. There is little about the growth – across the political spectrum – of the idea of ‘the servile state’. Hillaire Belloc’s term was used in the SLP, and William Paul wrote a book about it. There is the suggestion in a footnote that Murphy’s conceptions of the trade union bureaucracy may have been influenced by reading Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The History of Trade Unionism (1894). Another possible source was Roberto Michels, who ultimately presented in his ‘iron law of oligarchy’ a fatalistic account of the inevitability of bureaucratic control of the labour movement. Darlington mentions in a footnote a review by Murphy in 1920 of Michels’ Political Parties (p. 308, n42). But the book had been available in a translation by the British socialists Eden and Cedar Paul since 1916 – a year before The Workers’ Committee was published. And before he fell into despair, Michels had actively fought the bureaucratisation of the German Social Democratic Party, and wrote about it in The Socialist in 1905.
Rather than following these trails, Darlington relies on occasional conjecture as to Murphy’s activities before 1916, and on New Horizons, the autobiography Murphy published in 1941. Such retrospective accounts should be used, but – particularly in the case of a man who went underwent such drastic political reinvention – with circumspection and in conjunction with other sources. A mendacious statement of Murphy’s from 1956 makes the point succinctly: ‘When I resigned from the ranks of Communism at the introduction of Stalinist methods into the leadership of the British party ...’ (p. 256)
When Darlington’s text moves on to 1917 and the climax of the shop stewards movement, it is derivative. It follows closely, sometimes too closely for comfort, James Hinton’s The First Shop Stewards Movement (1973), as well as the same author’s introduction to reprints of Murphy’s The Workers’ Committee and Preparing for Power, both republished in 1972. Following Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s Marxism and the Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 (1986), only one significant revision of Hinton’s work is offered. The shop stewards are criticised for failing to provide leadership in mobilising industrial action to halt the war as the movement against conscription developed in early 1918. Hinton sensitively analysed the interaction of the attitudes of the NAC – with their responsive conceptions and critique of leadership in terms of manipulation and substitutionism – and the consciousness of their members. He carefully contextualised these problems in the traditions of engineering trade unionism and craft consciousness. He concluded that the decision to retreat from calls for a strike against the war after they had consulted their members was understandable and realistic on the part of these stewards with these members in these conditions.
That judgement remains persuasive. It is rejected here, not on the basis of any detailed re-examination of the episode and elaboration of a rigorously documented and argued alternative course of action, but in terms of abstract, timeless rhetoric. Hinton, it is asserted, lets Murphy and his comrades off the hook for their failure actively to oppose the war, because ‘the only hope lay in trying to harness the strength of an engineers’ craft-based workshop organisation to the wider interests of the working-class movement, a class-wide agitation for militant trade unionism, fusing immediate economic issues with politics in a struggle against the war’ (p. 46). This is somewhat easier on the page than in the workshops. When Murphy was victimised at this time, it proved impossible to secure sympathy action, a fact which Darlington glosses over (p. 50). Nor could the NAC win wider support for the Midlands strikes in the autumn of 1918. What price then a national stoppage to secure peace? As Bernard Waite’s A Class Society at War: England 1914–18 (1983) demonstrated with a wealth of detail, there was a lack of support amongst workers for an anti-war movement. Posing alternatives is fruitful, but only so long as we have evidence to justify their serious consideration, and only so long as we operate with proper conceptions of historical possibility, related to a careful examination of what actions could have been realistically conceived by the protagonists at the time, as well as both the potential and the constraints within the prevailing situation. In the case under scrutiny, the social forces for the realisation of an alternative history were simply not present.
Much of Darlington’s material on the events leading to the formation of the CPGB flows directly from secondary sources, primarily Ray Challinor’s The Origins of British Bolshevism (1977). Perhaps understandably, Darlington tends to overemphasise Murphy’s rôle in the development of the SLP towards Bolshevism. The party was moving in that direction before Murphy became a member. As with The Workers’ Committee, we must recognise the dialectic between individual and collective in the generation of ideas. The rôle, amongst others, of McManus, Bell and Paul, stalwarts of the party from the start of the century, deserves more emphasis than it receives in statements such as ‘Murphy and the other SLP shop stewards’ and ‘Murphy and his comrades’ (pp. 58–9). The enmity that Murphy’s individualist stance on the BSP-SLP unity talks engendered amongst his comrades was long-standing (see Tom Bell, The British Communist Party: A Short History, p. 57).
The best section of this book examines Murphy’s involvement in the problems of the CPGB through the 1920s. Darlington has examined the documents of the CPGB in Moscow, and tracked down Murphy’s papers in Canada. The result is an account which adds significantly to earlier work such as Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900–21 (1969), and LJ McFarlane’s The British Communist Party: Its Origins and Development Until 1929 (1966). Darlington’s research vindicates Kendall on the extent of Russian influence and subsidy to the CPGB. He estimates that around £1 million was expended on launching the party, although he emphasises the ideological confluence of the British Marxists and the Bolsheviks. The impact of the Soviet funds – some would argue they played a disorganising rôle rather than simply lubricating both the passage of alien conceptions of organisation and politics from the USSR to Britain and the CPGB’s subordination to Moscow – requires further assessment.
As against the recent tendency to detect and celebrate the CPGB’s autonomy from the Russians, Darlington is clear and emphatic; allowing for the need for tactical realisation of broad policy on the national terrain, political subservience was the norm. Any autonomy, he concludes, was ‘strictly circumscribed and limited mainly to day-to-day operational issues. All the major strategic issues were laid down by the Comintern in Moscow, and adhered to by the various national sectors.’ (p. 293) Whilst no good judge would disagree, the author occasionally minimises the space available for opposition. Discussing the lack of dissent in the CPGB over the excommunication of Trotsky in 1924–25, he argues a stark either ... or: ‘The problem for the CPGB leadership was that it had to accept the situation or break with the Comintern.’ (p. 141) Why then was there initial and sometimes extensive and sustained opposition in other national parties? As with much recent work on British Communism, the absence of international comparison limits the analysis. The history of the French party or, more dramatically, the similarly small and weak Belgian party demonstrates that before the ultimate interdiction of the International descended, there was room for manoeuvre. The specific weaknesses of the CPGB in relation to other parties, particularly the range of concrete factors which saw the British workers’ leaders of 1920 reduced by Stalinism, requires further exploration.
Darlington’s book is valuable in at least beginning to look in more detail at the precise processes by which the Comintern was subordinated to the emerging Stalinist state, and the national parties to the Comintern. One essential mediating factor was the reconstruction and absorption of national leaders such as Murphy. The rôle the International Control Commission played in hunting out heresy in individual parties, and the activities of the Comintern’s Commission on Internal Relations, touched on here, will bear further scrutiny. Murphy sat on both, and his activities on the Special Commission on the French party will be of particular interest to Revolutionary History readers.
Murphy’s resignation from the party is not even mentioned in Noreen Branson’s quasi-official History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927–41 (1985). Darlington provides the first detailed account. The incident remains difficult to understand in purely political terms. And quite why he terms Murphy’s subsequent expulsion ‘unjustified’ (p. 214) is unclear. Against the background of the CPGB’s practice and regime, Murphy’s baffling resignation and subsequent refusal to attend the Political Bureau to explain himself left the leadership with no alternative but to administer the coup de grâce to somebody most of them had very little time for anyway. This volume is of less interest in its treatment of the Socialist League, whilst Murphy’s speedy political evolution in the 1930s from ultra-leftism to Popular Frontism is explained only very broadly in terms of his acute awareness of the Fascist threat. Whether Murphy still remained in intellectual thrall to the party to which he had given so much of his life is not discussed. Darlington’s round-up of Murphy’s life in the 1940s and 1950s means we have a fuller picture of a life which for many on the left appeared hitherto to have ended in the 1920s.
At least some of the problems with this text lie in the framework in which the author has chosen to cast his story. Darlington is explicit, saying ‘this book derives from the theoretical tradition of the Socialist Workers Party’ (p. xxi). Many of the weaknesses of the evaluations made in the text of people and events flow from the debility of that tradition and the use of its preoccupations as a sometimes intrusive and ahistorical yardstick. One example will suffice: the Labour Party is portrayed in a one-sided, inflexible, unstrategic fashion in the chapters dealing with the 1920s and 1930s, as it has been by the International Socialists and the SWP over the last 30 years. It is to be avoided at all costs; it is as destructive to revolutionaries as kryptonite is to Superman. Thus Murphy is taken to school: ‘His notion that Socialists in the circumstances of the early 1930s should remain inside the Labour Party merely helped to provide a left cover and breed false expectations in such leaders.’ (p. 229) A few lines later, we are given a specific example: ‘As the German revolution of 1918–19 had demonstrated, the consequences of Socialists staying inside a reformist party in a revolutionary period led inevitably to catastrophe.’ (p. 229) The yawning gulf that separated the problems of British revolutionaries in 1932 and their German counterparts in 1918–19 is simply excised. The question also arises as to whether Tony Cliff has proved uniquely immune to kryptonite; did the sojourn of his followers in the Labour Party from 1950 to around 1965 merely help to provide a left cover and breed expectations in Attlee, Gaitskell and Wilson? Sensing the difficulties, Darlington provides a rather evasive footnote stating that entrism is permissible, but only when revolutionaries are very weak, and so long as it is not long term. Most people would judge that revolutionaries were very weak in ‘the circumstances of the early 1930s’. So why is Murphy criticised for joining the Labour Party? Moreover, the Socialist Review Group’s decade-and-a-half visit was something more than the quick raid that its successor insists Trotsky envisaged.
Murphy, of course, was as isolated in 1932 as the SRG was in the 1950s. To criticise him for joining the Labour Party is ludicrous. But the Socialist League, 2,000 to 3,000-strong, is also taken to task for remaining in the Labour Party. Those who had any thoughts of leaving would have looked to the ILP, of which they had been members. The League is compared unfavourably with the CPGB, ‘despite its increasing Stalinism and the adoption of the Popular Front policy,... the Communist Party still rejected Labour’s parliamentary cretinism and had an orientation on the struggles of the working class’ (p. 231). That word ‘despite’, how small but how mighty in banishing little things like Stalinism and Popular Frontism and the ultimately integrated nature of Communist Party politics. It is unclear whether Darlington is suggesting that revolutionaries of the early 1930s should have stayed within the CPGB as on his judgement that it was healthier than the Socialist League – that is certainly the drift of his analysis. If so, the aspiration is utopian, as the expulsion of the Trotskyists in 1932–33 graphically demonstrated. It is interesting that these flesh-and-blood revolutionary activists of the early 1930s – Reg Groves, Henry Sara, Harry Wicks and their comrades, the difficulties they confronted, the decisions they took – are not mentioned in the text, still less used as a yardstick to measure Murphy’s activities. And there are only brief references to ‘the Trotskyists’ in the footnotes. After all, Groves was on the League’s Executive when Murphy was its Secretary. Instead of examining the concrete problems and alternatives that the revolutionary left faced in the 1930s in deciding whether to join the Labour Party or ILP or build an open organisation, that distant world and its struggles are refracted through the prism of the contemporary SWP. This is not the way to write history.
A second problem lies in Darlington’s eschewal of ‘standard biographical narrative (with irrelevant details of personal idiosyncrasies)’ (pp. xxiv–v). But life and logic teach us the importance of the ‘personal’ in understanding an individual’s political trajectory. The biographical form, still frowned upon in the academic world, is a useful weapon in the armoury of historians, its vices and virtues recently illustrated by Patricia Hollis’ Jennie Lee: A Life (1997). More intensive engagement with Murphy’s values, motivations and ‘personal idiosyncrasies’ just might have helped explain key incidents in his political trajectory which remain vague. Various personal details about Murphy and his wife Molly, whose autobiography has been published to coincide with Darlington’s book, are scattered through these texts. They are never brought together to frame his political trajectory, and thus deepen our understanding of it. Murphy, for example, demonstrated early aspirations to upward social mobility. But he was forced to abandon early plans to enter the civil service. Study, self-improvement, the shop stewards movement, the SLP and CPGB provided an alternative path to emancipation. Yet Murphy’s ambition remained intact. A recent article suggests that he attracted the patronage of ‘a prominent individual’ at the highest level of the Comintern. He saw criticism of the CPGB as a sure road to an internationally-assisted passage to its leadership (Andrew Thorpe, Comintern “Control” of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1920–43, English Historical Review, Volume 113, June 1998, pp. 646, 653–4).
If ambition and its thwarting was one possible factor in his evolution, the bourgeois family was another. What appears to have been a very conventional marriage to a woman who described herself as ‘lower middle-class’ and took little interest in politics saw both parents’ ambitions transferred to their son. As Molly Murphy wrote: ‘From his earliest years, both his father and I had determined that he should have the kind of education which we wish had been ours.’ (Molly Murphy, pp. 159–60) These working-class revolutionaries were determined to send their son to a fee-paying public school, in Britain the pathway to the élite, and an important litmus test of class consciousness. Perceived as scandalous behaviour on the part of a leading Communist, this stimulated sharp criticism within the CPGB. It became an additional tension in a situation where personal differences inevitably play some rôle in political conflicts. It drew the Murphies into the domestic economy and life of the middle class. It imposed on the couple a financial burden beyond the reach of a working-class family, and most political activists, intensified by the need periodically to hire domestic help. The salary Murphy received from Pravda became essential to pay the fees.
By 1932, Murphy was relatively isolated in the CPGB leadership, and had lost the patronage of the Comintern. He was impressed by the resilience of the Labour Party. The CPGB had little more than 2,000 members. Its prospects appeared grim, as did Murphy’s when he lost his job. Harry Pollitt, admittedly a political antagonist, had little doubt that personal and material factors, as well as political issues, were involved in his resignation (p. 215). Thereafter, his desire to operate as a professional intellectual and continue his son’s education produced a willingness to accept financial donations from rich friends. Taken out of their political context, emphasis on these factors may provide a distorted, one-sided portrait. If we want to understand the man and his politics better, they should be critically confronted and integrated within that context. Greater attention to the interpenetration of the personal and political might have produced a richer, more complex study. As it is, we get little sense of the man and the texture of his life. Murphy remains as inscrutable at the end of Darlington’s book as at the beginning.
Written in the 1960s, Molly Murphy: Suffragette and Socialist is more revealing, although those expecting the story of a British Kollontai or Pasionaria will be disappointed. Molly comes across as very much a woman of her class and time. She saw herself as ‘typical’ of English lower middle-class respectability and conventionalism (p. 74). She felt out of her depth in the world of the Comintern, embarrassed when Kollontai responded to her enquiry after her husband: ‘Which one, my dear?’ (p. 74) She played little part in political debates: ‘That was my husband’s job.’ Though she joined the CPGB, she emphasised ‘it meant simply that my husband’s friends were my friends, his loyalties my loyalties’ (p. 87). Intensely involved before 1914 in the suffragette movement, she seems to have been only briefly active in the CPGB, and not at all thereafter. Her main interests were children and nursing, although the quality of her commitments was demonstrated when she spent six months nursing in Spain in 1937. Very much the stereotypical supportive wife and mother, this record of her life surely deserves better than the Dave Spart-like comment: ‘She provides no analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution as a result of the combined impact of civil war and the revolution’s isolation internationally ...’ (p. v) Many women of that era, like Helen Crawford, Isabel Brown and Rose Smith, were Communist leaders. Others led overt or subterranean lives of great complexity and emotional intensity. There is no evidence of that here. And once again, the plot thickens; we are informed that according to her son, ‘her account was actually ghost-written by J.T. Murphy’ (p. iv). The editor has faith: ‘There is no question that the substantive nature of the account is Molly’s.’ (p. iv) For the conscientious historian, this leaves matters unresolved. Are we listening to Molly’s voice recapitulating what she thought, felt and did all these years earlier? Or are we listening to the voice of that inscrutable old Stalinist Jack Murphy, remembering, perhaps imperfectly, what he thought she ought to have thought and felt?
Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011