Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Left Communism in Britain

Dear Editor

Your last issue (Volume 8, no. 1) on the Comintern and its critics begins in 1924 with ‘Britain’s First Trotskyist’. But as I am sure many of your readers are aware, the Comintern had plenty of left-wing critics in Britain who did not wait until 1924 to oppose its early degeneration. I would like to respond to the article by John McIlroy on the early history of the CPGB, as it deals with this neglected but highly significant period. Despite McIlroy’s entirely justified riposte to the efforts of ‘revisionist’ historians to whitewash Stalinism, his arguments not only neglect the real history of left-wing opposition in the early CPGB, they also trivialise the political significance of its struggle against opportunism and centrism. As Revolutionary History declares itself open to ‘non-Trotskyist opinions’, this seems a good opportunity to begin an honest reappraisal of what is usually dismissed by both Stalinists and Trotskyists as the ‘ultra-left’, but which was in reality the left wing of the Communist International …

While it’s perfectly true, as McIlroy points out, that the CPGB, unlike other Communist parties, failed to give rise to any significant opposition leaders (his list curiously omits Bordiga in the Italian party), this surely means we need to be even more attentive to what opposition did exist in the early CPGB, and try to understand the possible reasons for its weaknesses, including the rôle of the Comintern itself in suppressing it as early as 1921.

Firstly, let’s look at the opposition to parliamentary action and affiliation to the Labour Party, which McIlroy dismisses as merely ‘vocal’, the symptom of ‘growing pains’ in an embryonic party, only due to the ‘tradition’ of some of the groups that formed it, etc. On the contrary, the struggle of the left wing in the early Comintern was a struggle for the formation of strongly centralised vanguard parties on the basis of a clean break with the parties of the bankrupt Second International and with their historically obsolete reformist methods. This was the ‘tradition’ of the Zimmerwald Left, and of the active supporters of Bolshevism and Spartacism in this country, of the revolutionary left in the British Socialist Party around Maclean, the best elements of the Socialist Labour Party, and the grouping around Sylvia Pankhurst.

Alongside the Italian, American and Dutch Lefts at the Comintern’s Second Congress, the British left put up a vigorous opposition to any link with the capitalist Labour Party, and, despite Lenin’s personal backing, it took all his efforts, in private conversation, open sessions and the commissions, finally to break down their resistance. Ultimately, for lefts like Pankhurst and Gallacher at this time, it was a matter of deciding as a faction of a centralised International to accept its discipline and work within it for a change of line. On her return, Pankhurst roundly criticised the ‘Little England’ mentality of those who objected to the ‘interference of Moscow’, while Gallacher – whatever he might later say in his memoirs – argued for the right of the anti-parliamentary left to defend its positions within the CPGB while respecting party discipline, and urged Pankhurst and Guy Aldred and their supporters to enter the party to fight for their positions.

The issue for the left was not Comintern discipline per se (in fact it was Bordiga who proposed the twenty-first and most binding condition of Comintern admission), but the fact that this discipline was increasingly exercised not against the right – the opportunists and centrists trying to slide into the International – but against the left, the strongest opponents of opportunism.

It simply isn’t true, as McIlroy claims, that all this opposition was ‘swiftly dissolved by Lenin’s authority’. What disdain for the real history of the revolutionary movement! The reality is a little more complex, as I hope the following shows.

The earliest conferences of the CPGB – as McIlroy himself describes – continued to express opposition to Labour Party affiliation and parliamentary action, and also saw efforts to exercise effective party control over party MPs and full-time trade union officials in the spirit of the Comintern’s Twenty-one Conditions. Inexplicably, McIlroy also dismisses the strong resistance to the Comintern’s united front policy as ‘trivial’, even though he admits that 20 per cent of delegates initially opposed its adoption. Of course, all this opposition has been dismissed – as it was at the time by supporters of Comintern policy – merely as the persistence of ‘left sectarianism’, or as the resistance of ‘old-fashioned’ social democratic branches to the reorganisation of the party along Bolshevik lines. In reality, it was essentially in continuity with the earlier struggle of the left to form a centralised party based on a clean break with social democracy: at the CPGB’s 1922 Policy Conference, for example, one opponent of the united front called for a ‘clean’ party, ‘absolutely a working-class party, with a revolutionary outlook’ (Workers’ Dreadnought, 1 April 1922).

It’s true that of the former left leaders, only Sylvia Pankhurst continued oppositional activity in the CPGB. Pankhurst’s individualist attitude to organisation, and the circumstances of her expulsion in 1921 for refusing to hand over control of her paper, have all too easily been used to obscure the deeper political significance of the Workers’ Dreadnought group, which saw itself as a left opposition working within the CPGB to pressurise the leadership to expel ‘non-Communist’ elements and move the party to the left. The fact is that Pankhurst was expelled for exposing the blatant reformist practices of the party’s right wing. For the Dreadnought group, such lapses into reformist practices were not accidental but were the logical outcome of the contradictory policies adopted by the Comintern in its confused attempt to create mass parties to compensate for the retreat of the world revolution. This group was also the first tendency within the CPGB to dare to raise the issue of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, warning the whole working class against the Comintern’s abandonment of the struggle for world revolution and the growing accommodation of the Russian state with Western capitalism.

The expulsion of the Dreadnought group from the CPGB was itself a symptom of the growing rightward trend throughout the International, confirmed by the expulsion of the German, Dutch and Bulgarian Lefts after the Third World Congress. Further signs of resistance were effectively stifled by the so-called ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CPGB after 1922, which represented a major step in the bureaucratisation of the party and the suppression of internal dissent. While the CPGB had inherited many of the weaknesses of centralised functioning, the replacement of local branches with cells or factory groups along the lines laid down by the Third Congress proved as disastrous as it was in the local branches, where much of the remaining healthy proletarian life in the party was expressed.

This suppression of early left-wing opposition in the CPGB by 1922–23 goes a long way to explaining why A.E. Reade, when he stood up to defend Trotsky in his struggle against Stalin in 1924, found himself so isolated. And yet, for McIlroy the main lesson to draw from the CPGB’s early years is … the need to struggle against ‘ultra-leftism’ (p. 226)! On the contrary, the main lesson from this whole period is the need to struggle against the much greater danger of right opportunism.

Let’s just nail this inaccurate and derogatory use of the term ‘ultra-leftism’, shall we? Lenin’s famous polemic was against what he called ‘Left doctrinairism’, which was on his own admission a secondary enemy; and one ‘at present a thousand times less dangerous and less significant than that of Right doctrinairism (that is, social-chauvinism and Kautskyism) …’ (Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). Ultra-leftism was a separate and distinct phenomenon that emerged within the Comintern, particularly in Germany, which also infected elements in its own leadership and led to the failed armed uprising of March 1921 and further splits in the German party. In this proper sense – of a tendency towards adventurism and attempts artificially to provoke revolutionary situations – ultra-leftism was never a very influential tendency within the British revolutionary movement, only flowering within the CPGB during the ‘Third Period’ of Stalinism.

So, in conclusion, while I agree with John McIlroy’s emphasis on the importance of the early years of the CPGB, and while I can only concur with his criticisms of the revisionist school, I cannot agree that he offers either a serious assessment of the Comintern’s earliest left-wing critics in Britain, or – more fundamentally – an adequate framework for a better understanding of this period. Trotskyist historians of course might well choke on finding that Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought group was effectively the first left opposition in the CPGB, but they might do well to reflect on the fact that Trotsky’s personal hostility to the Communist Left, and his rôle in hounding it out of the International (see, for example, his scathing speech attacking the policy of the KAPD to the ECCI, 24 November 1920), directly contributed to the early suppression of dissent in the CPGB, and that as one consequence of this, the forces of the anti-Stalinist opposition which finally emerged from within the CPGB at the end of the 1920s were particularly weak and fragmented, while a comparison of the Balham Group’s analyses with those of the Workers’ Dreadnought 10 years earlier only serve to underline the shallowness of the former’s critique of the roots of opportunism. A strong left wing in the CPGB in 1921 might have given rise to a more solid and politically deep-rooted opposition to Stalinism after 1924.

Of course, there were deeper historical reasons for the weakness of the left in the CPGB, which I cannot deal with here, but in the meantime can I propose a special issue or series of themed articles on, say, left-wing opposition in the CPGB, 1920 to 1932–33’? If Revolutionary History is genuinely interested in learning from the history of this ‘immensely significant’ period, I would be willing to contribute the results of my own original research, and to collaborate with others researching this subject.

Martin Tomlinson

John McIlroy replies:

I contributed two pieces to Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 1. The first surveyed Arthur Reade’s early life. The second responded to historians who have sought to diminish the influence of the Comintern and the Russian state on the politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). I had no intention of dealing with Sylvia Pankhurst. While Reade is a neglected figure, two very useful biographies of Pankhurst by Barbara Winslow and Mary Davies have appeared in recent years. I had no intention of dealing with the Workers’ Dreadnought group within the CPGB. My second piece was essentially a rebuttal. As such, it was structured by the need to engage with Andrew Thorpe’s arguments and evidence in relation to the early years of the CPGB. As he did not utilise the activities of the Dreadnought group for the purpose of his argument, they were scarcely relevant to my purpose in writing the article. Again, there is an abundance of perfectly serviceable material in print, from Walter Kendall’s Revolutionary Movement in Britain to Mark Shipway’s Anti-Parliamentary Communism.

Tomlinson commends what he terms my ‘entirely justified riposte to the efforts of revisionist historians to whitewash Stalinism’. Nonetheless, he is exasperated by three sentences amongst some 10,000 words, in which I responded to brief references in Thorpe’s work to the united front, and at the end of the article reflected that ultra-leftism is always with us. He further objects to my use of that term to denote Left Communists, and, trivially, to the absence of Bordiga from a sample of opponents of the Comintern. He delivers himself of a series of accusations: I ‘neglect the real history of left-wing opposition in the early CPGB … trivialise the political significance of its struggle, and I fail to offer ‘a serious assessment of the Comintern’s earliest left-wing critics in Britain’.

Tomlinson’s approach will be familiar to students of bad criticism and connoisseurs of poor polemic. His attack is aimed not at the article I wrote, but at the article he believes I – or more precisely in view of his offer of his services to Revolutionary History – the article he should have written. To repeat: the article was in intention and substance ‘a riposte to revisionist historians’. It was never designed to address ‘the real history of left-wing opposition’. But Tomlinson is determined to ride his hobbyhorse in the pages of Revolutionary History, and any pretext, even one as brazen as these three sentences, will suffice. They hardly represent, as he suggests, ‘a good opportunity to begin an honest reappraisal of ultra-leftism’ – at least not by any reasonable standards. Nonetheless, as Revolutionary History is a journal of record, I will briefly examine Tomlinson’s contention that I and other historians have missed something significant, that ‘Sylvia Pankhurst’s Dreadnought group was effectively the first left opposition in the CPGB’.

Tomlinson’s assertions boil down to this. Opposition from ultra-leftists such as Gallacher, Tanner and Pankhurst was not part of the pre-history of the CPGB, substantially resolved by the authority of Lenin and the Comintern and the creation of the united party in January 1921. The Workers’ Dreadnought group ‘saw itself as a left opposition working within the CPGB to pressurise the leaders to expel “non-Communist” elements and move the party to the left’ (my emphasis). ‘Strong resistance’ to the united front on the part of this opposition was maintained through 1922. ‘The earliest conferences of the CPGB … continued to express opposition to Labour Party affiliation and Parliamentary action.’ This was coherent, organised, significant opposition. It was based on continuity with ‘the earlier struggle of the left’, in 1919-21. It was only the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the party – which would take us into 1923–24, if not later – which ‘effectively stifled’ what Tomlinson opaquely refers to as ‘further signs of resistance’.

This is a grossly under-evidenced, heavily exaggerated account; it can only be sustained by resort to the techniques of imprecision, isolation and inflation which Tomlinson joins with me in deploring when employed by the revisionists. Let us turn to the facts. Firstly, it is incontestable that at least some of the leaders of ‘the Dreadnought group’, the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), approached entry into a united party with the perspective of organising a coherent left opposition. The well-known statements from Pankhurst that the BSTI would form ‘a left bloc’ with its own meetings, convenors and press within the unified party were complemented by declarations from its general secretary, Edgar Whitehead. He maintained that the ex-BSTI members would campaign for their politics within the new CPGB, and that if they failed to change its policies they would split it.

Secondly, the context was important. Once lefts such as Gallacher, Tanner, Pankhurst and Whitehead accepted the necessity and supremacy of the Comintern, the rationale for a party standing outside the Comintern unravelled. But the rationale for factional organisation antagonistic to Comintern policies was also undermined. And new divisions emerged, for example, between the BSTI and Guy Aldred’s Anti-Parliamentary Federation. Crucially, the BSTI approached the Unity Convention of January 1921 in a weak, divided state. This augured badly for the creation of an effective opposition within the CPGB. They had swallowed whole the theses and resolutions of the Comintern, which defined their anti-parliamentarianism as ‘a naïve and childish doctrine’, as a precondition for admission to the party. They had suffered the secession of four branches which refused to accept this concession. Moreover, the continuing warfare over Pankhurst’s ownership and control of the Dreadnought culminated in the BSTI’s disavowal of any connection with it.

Thirdly, the official reports of the preliminary meeting and the Unity Convention itself say nothing about continuing organisational or political rights for the BSTI within the united party. They make no reference to a left bloc. Neither does the report of the convention in the Dreadnought. The editor recorded that she had been handed an official communiqué with the request that she publish only this official report. As Whitehead put it, the BSTI were in no position to bargain. Fourthly, and crucially, the economic and political situation was negatively transformed through 1921. As the state and capital attempted to reverse the balance of class forces, as unemployment soared, as big defensive industrial struggles emerged, as the BSTI members were absorbed into CPGB branches and into those struggles, no opposition on the part of those members emerges. The statements of Pankhurst and Whitehead on a left bloc and splitting the party remained rhetorical. Tomlinson assures us that the BSTI ‘saw itself as a left opposition working within the CPGB to pressurise the leadership to expel “non-Communist” elements and move the party to the left’. The historical record demonstrates no trace of any such grandiose struggle on the party executive, in the branches, in the press, on the part of the two members who sat on the unified executive, Dick Beech and Tom Watkins, on the part of Whitehead or Pankhurst, or on the part of any other former member of the BSTI.

This is what we do know. Pankhurst, who had been out of it all as Prisoner 9587 since the autumn of 1920, resumed activity only in June 1921. That, in all probability, is when she became, for the first time, a member of the CPGB. The Dreadnought which, remember, was not a party paper, published left material from Kollontai as well as Herman Gorter’s Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, while from July Sylvia criticised the behaviour of CPGB members of the Poplar Board of Guardians who had cut outdoor relief. Tomlinson informs us clearly and succinctly that ‘Pankhurst continued oppositional activity in the CPGB’. But there is no evidence for her taking up even the Poplar issue inside the Party. In fact she was rebuked by her own Bow branch for publicly criticising comrades rather than resolving matters within the party. The litmus test for any ‘left opposition working within the CPGB to pressurise the leadership’ came on 10 September 1921. Sylvia was expelled for refusing to place the Dreadnought under party control. This surely was the time when we would hear from this subterranean opposition beavering away to expel the right.

As Pankhurst’s biographer Barbara Winslow records, the silence was deafening and significant. The opposition which was allegedly working to expel the right demonstrated no opposition to the expulsion of the leading left. Not a single objection was recorded in the party press. Even in her own Dreadnought, Sylvia’s dramatic exit stimulated only a handful of protests. They came from A.J. and F.E. Symes, who had already left the CPGB, and F.W. Taylor, who resigned from the Birmingham branch on account of ‘the damnable autocratic actions of the EC of the Party’ (Dreadnought, 10 and 17 September 1921). From Beech, Watkins and Whitehead there was not a peep. If they were part of a left opposition, nobody told them. The only recorded attempt by Pankhurst to influence the CPGB directly as an external critic came when she addressed the Camberwell and Southwark branches. A month after her expulsion, she was advising any sympathisers in the CPGB not to organise opposition within the party, but to join Gorter’s Fourth International (Dreadnought, 29 October 1921, 17 November 1921). The only half-way prominent BSTI activist who did so, to my knowledge, was the future Trotskyist, Arthur Carford, who prophesied a big split in the CPGB: it never came (Dreadnought, 14 January 1922).

Tomlinson’s loose talk of a left opposition struggling to expel its opponents – that is, almost the entire CPGB – may go down very well in Wildcat. It fails to survive serious scrutiny. Unable to produce a shred of direct evidence, he resorts to imprecise allusion to party conference votes on the Labour Party and the united front. If we take up his reference to the earliest conferences of the united party in 1922 and 1924, they provide slender support for his claims. ‘McIlroy’, Tomlinson asserts, ‘admits’ that 20 per cent of the delegates at a conference (which he does not bother to name) were opposed to the united front. McIlroy admits no such thing, as Tomlinson would have discovered had he taken the time to study my article rather than myopically scouring it for references to ultra-leftism. What I wrote was: ‘Thorpe’s second example – he points out that 20 per cent of delegates voted against the united front as part of deciding policy at the 1922 Congress is, surely, a mild and normal example of dissent, if indeed it can be termed dissent with any exactitude.’

The point I was endeavouring to make is that some historians throw around terms like ‘dissent’ and ‘oppositional’ without specifying what they mean and without differentiating between them. A vote against establishing a line should be weighed differently than a vote against an established line; holding a card up at a congress is distinct from forming a faction; we cannot infer, as Tomlinson does, from votes at congress against establishing a policy that they represent or reflect the existence of a left opposition struggling to rid the CPGB of its ‘right opportunism’.

But matters are even more fundamental. When we turn to the report of the March 1922 CPGB Conference to which Thorpe is referring, we find that, yet again, there is no evidence for his claim. Thorpe tells us that 20 per cent of delegates voted against the united front. The report states, on the contrary, that the resolution on the united front was carried ‘practically unanimously’. One of the points I tried to make in my article was that if those on the left – or even the ultra-left – take what Thorpe says without checking it, they will get into trouble. Tomlinson proves the point.

Tomlinson thus produces no evidence at all to upholster his statement that there was ‘strong resistance’ to the united front policy. Again, this is what we know. J.T. Murphy noted that there had been a ‘considerable’ loss of members on the introduction of the tactic. Pelling, who repeats this, puts it down to the sectarian traditions of the groups which had formed the CPGB. We know no more. The party was in disarray in 1922 for a range of reasons. The united front was open to diverse interpretations as to its application. Significant numbers of CPGB members certainly expressed doubts, worries, concerns and reservations about the new approach, and for a wide variety of reasons. There is nothing unusual or oppositional, still less leftist in Tomlinson’s precise partisan sense, in this, or even in members leaving the party. My old friend, the future Trotskyist I.P. Hughes, did not see how the united front could work, given the nature of the Labour Party in Liverpool. Our old friend Arthur Reade did not like it because he did not want to work with Labour Party supporters in the universities, although, most emphatically, he supported the expulsion of Sylvia Pankhurst. A much smaller group were opposed in principle. When it came to the crunch, almost everybody in the party accepted it. As we have seen, the March 1922 Conference was ‘practically unanimous’. When Tomlinson tells us that at that conference one opponent called for a ‘“clean” party’, he is presumably referring to the only person recorded as speaking against the tactic. And that speaker was an exotic aficionado of Pannekoek or Gorter only in Tomlinson’s dreams. He was, in reality, the old Scouse salt, George Garrett (Communist, 25 March 1922).

The united front was again discussed at the CPGB Conference in October 1922. The only ‘record’ of voting I have discovered is a hand-written scrawl on the conference agenda: it could either record a vote of 80–10 or refer to SO (Standing Order) 10. Let us assume for the purpose of this exercise that it is the former. So we have in total 10 votes against the united front at the first two conferences of the unified CPGB, taken at the very inception of the tactic. This is scarcely convincing evidence for Tomlinson’s ‘strong resistance’, for a powerful refusal to comply.

The position is not qualitatively different if we subject Tomlinson’s assertions about ‘opposition to Labour Party affiliation’ to a halfway rigorous inspection. At the March 1922 conference, there were amendments from just two of the 145 branches represented, one recommending the spoiling of ballot papers. The only ‘success’ was a 112–31 vote in favour of affiliation to the Labour Party. Furthermore, in July 1922, when the CPGB executive decided to withdraw candidates standing in opposition to official Labour Party candidates, some dissent manifested itself. Two Glasgow branches were reorganised. The Executive reported that ‘we are satisfied that this opposition has now almost completely disappeared and that little or no disagreement exists in the Party’ (CPGB Party Conference, October 1922, . p7). After 1922, nothing more is heard on this score. Once again, if we apply a proper historical perspective and eschew partisan magnification, this is scarcely evidence for the verdict that there was a powerful refusal to comply with CPGB policy on the Labour Party. It is all we will find on ‘resistance’ to the Labour Party and the united front strategy between 1921 and 1928. It comes from the period when the CPGB was at its most open and ‘democratic’. It does not justify in any way Tomlinson’s assertion that there was, in 1921–22, a left opposition in the CPGB which represented ‘continuity with the earlier struggles of the left to form a centralised party based on a clean break with social democracy’.

There is, whether we like it or not, no evidence for such continuity as distinct from what Palme Dutt termed ‘teething troubles’ consequent on bedding down a disparate membership faced with tactics new to them, often stemming from a variety of pre-1920 traditions such as that of the Socialist Labour Party (particularly in the case of the Glasgow branches). If an element of the WSF-CPBSTI tradition was present, it took no coherent or organised form, and it has left no record. Tomlinson’s attempts to assimilate the fragmentary, disparate, often individualistic questioning of the Labour Party and united front tactics, or even members dropping out over them, to Council Communism is an unhistorical exercise in partisan appropriation. It is Tomlinson, not those he criticises, who demonstrates a disdain for real history.

British Communists were sobered by the bleaker climate of 1921–22 and the fall away from the insurgency of 1919–20. This dissipated many left illusions in tandem with the new Comintern credos. For the most part, former BSTI members dropped away or were absorbed into the mainstream of the CPGB. After his brief tenure on the Executive, Watkins vanished into obscurity. Whitehead became a CPGB functionary: rather than organising a left bloc, he spent most of 1921–22 in Germany, Scandinavia and America. Beech, essentially a left syndicalist, got stuck into the Minority Movement, re-emerging as a dissident at the end of the 1920s. Eden and Cedar Paul left the party, but soon rejoined. So did Carford. Others, for example, Henry Sara, refused to join the CPGB with the BSTI, enrolling around a year later. Yet by 1923, he was speaking for the Third International in a debate with Pankhurst. From other former lefts, such as Gallacher and Tanner, there was scarcely a whimper. Gallacher boasted that Lenin had cured him of leftism, and did nothing to redeem his promise to help fight for anti-parliamentarianism inside the CPGB. Tanner quickly dropped out – it may well have been over the united front – and became a fellow-travelling trade unionist. What eclipsed leftism in Britain was, as in Sara’s case, the political reverses suffered by the European proletariat, the burning belief in the necessity of preserving the Russian Revolution, and the sometimes reluctant acknowledgement that, with the working class in retreat, the Comintern represented the best instrument for achieving this.

Finally, Tomlinson is exercised by my use of the term ‘ultra-leftism’ to designate opponents of the Comintern’s espousal of parliamentarianism, the united front and critical support for the Labour Party. Lenin, he says, did not use it in Left-Wing Communism. The point is persuasive only to dogmatists. However, if it makes him happy, we can easily replace it with a term Lenin did use liberally in relation to the Pankhursts and Bordigas: the infantile left.

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011