Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


How Not To Rehabilitate
Communist History

Dear Editor

John McIlroy’s reply to my comments on his treatment of opposition and dissent in the early Communist Party of Great Britain (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2) demands a response, if only to highlight his distortion of my arguments, but also to correct the errors and omissions in his own historical account.

J.M. ridicules the whole idea that there was left-wing opposition inside the CPGB during its first three years of life, accusing me of being ‘unable to produce a shred of direct evidence’ for its existence. He also accuses me of attempting to assimilate this non-existent opposition to Left Communism, which he dismisses, with stunning unoriginality, as the ‘infantile left’.

Actually the starting point for my argument was very clear: what has been hitherto ignored or distorted by both Stalinist and Trotskyist historians as an ‘infantile disorder’ was in reality the struggle of the original left wing of the Communist International against the growth of opportunism in its ranks. While the Workers’ Dreadnought group around Sylvia Pankhurst was the clearest expression of this struggle in Britain, the opposition in the CPGB to the CI’s united front and Labour Party policies was also part of this wider resistance. By studiously ignoring this basic point, J.M. perpetuates the very same distortion, but he can only do this at the expense of the facts. Subjected to scrutiny, J.M.’s arguments are actually quite crude, and his account is not as authoritative as he would have us believe.

Firstly, he argues that there is no evidence of strong resistance in the CPGB to the united front. He points out that I am wrong to claim it was opposed by 20 per cent of delegates at the party’s Special Policy Conference in March 1922 – my mistake was to rely on his own original article as a source (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 1, p. 209). This conference debated two separate resolutions; one on the united front, which was indeed carried ‘practically unanimously’ (Report of the Policy Conference of the CPGB, 1922), and one on the party’s electoral policy, which saw an amendment put forward opposing affiliation to the Labour Party. This was lost by 31 votes to 112, indicating opposition by a fifth of the party to official CI policy. This was contradictory, as in practice the two issues were inextricably linked: since the ECCI’s united front directive specifically ordered the British Communists ‘to begin a vigorous campaign for their acceptance by the Labour Party’ (J. Degras, The Communist International 1919–1943: Documents, Volume 1, 1971, p. 313), the amendment was in effect a rejection of the united front.

Fortunately, we don’t have to quibble with J.M. about this interpretation, because we have another source which confirms that, even in late 1922, a quarter of the British party was opposed to the united front. J.M. fails to mention this, which is odd, because the source is none other than the ECCI, in response to a questionnaire it sent out before the fourth CI congress in November 1922 (Degras, op. cit., p. 417). This recorded all levels of disagreement, passive as well as active, but its results are consistent with the scale of opposition to affiliation.

J.M.’s account is also less than complete in describing opposition by local CP branches. In September 1922, for example, the party’s executive heard reports of protests from ‘certain branches’ including Aberdeen, Bradford and Hull, after members had refused to carry out a directive to join their local Labour Party. The Pendleton branch was also having problems carrying out the united front policy, while Bridgeton had already ‘placed itself outside the party’ (minutes of the Executive Committee meetings, 16–18, 22 September 1922). All this is documented in the CPGB archive (file 495/100/58 on microfilm). The detailed reports of party officials in response to the ECCI questionnaire provide further evidence of the state of the branches at this time; some reported no disagreements while others, for example in Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds and Bradford, described varying degrees of dissent (file 495/33/239a, CPGB archive).

Contrary to the leadership’s claim – quoted by J.M. in support of his argument – that all this opposition had ended by the time of the October 1922 Party Conference, 10 per cent of delegates voted against Labour Party affiliation (see International Press Correspondence, 17 October 1922, Supplement). In November, the Barrow branch did not distribute the party’s election manifesto (minutes of Central Executive meeting, 21 November 1922). ‘After 1922’, J.M. claims, ‘nothing more is heard on this score’, yet as late as August 1923, individual CPGB members were still being expelled for publicly opposing the Labour Party and united front policy (Workers’ Weekly, 11 August 1923).

Anyone without a very big axe to grind by this point would have concluded that until late 1922 a substantial minority of the CPGB’s membership was prepared to express its opposition to official CI policy on both the Labour Party and the united front. Although this opposition was fragmented and uncoordinated, it was expressed at both local and national levels, through speeches, amendments and votes at party conferences, individual and group protests and refusals to carry out directives, resulting in disciplinary action and the expulsion of whole branches. Many other dissidents undoubtedly voted with their feet, forcing the leadership to acknowledge what was a ‘considerable loss of membership’ (ECCI, Fourth Congress Report, p. 61, cited in Henry Pelling, The British Communist Party, 1958, p. 25). For J.M., by contrast, all this is ‘trivial’, or non-existent.

Having tried to deny the existence of this opposition, J.M. then attempts to dismiss its political significance. His rather surprising argument against me is that there is no evidence that it had any continuity with the earlier struggle of the left to form a communist party in Britain based on a clean break with Labourism and reformism. Of course, to admit such continuity would threaten his effort to consign the so-called ‘ultra-left’ to the dustbin.

While it’s true that there were some individuals on the right of the party who opposed the united front (like the trade union leader A.A. Purcell, who broke with the party over the issue in April 1922), the rejection of any compromise with the Labour Party was overwhelmingly a position defended by the left. It is enough to recall the very close vote in favour of affiliation at the Unity Convention on 1 August 1920 (100 to 85 votes) to demonstrate the strength of this position in the new party. Back in April, the left – that is, broadly, Pankhurst’s small but influential group, the non-sectarian wing of the Socialist Labour Party, and the best elements of the syndicalist movement – had almost succeeded in forming a communist party on the basis of non-affiliation to the Labour Party, after isolating the centrist BSP (see The Call, 6 May 1920). The reasons given for disagreement with the united front in party officials’ reports amply confirm that this was from the left; I.P. Hughes in Liverpool, for example, described a growing number of branch members who rejected the united front tactic due to the reactionary policy of the Labour Party and its leaders. Other dissenters feared it would curtail communists’ criticisms of Labour leaders, and be interpreted by the workers as a surrender of principle, or simply rejected it as a compromise with capitalist political parties (file 495/33/239a, CPGB archive). Do these sound like the arguments of the centre or of the right?

This brings us to the Workers’ Dreadnought group; J.M. denies that there is any evidence that it acted as a left opposition within the CPGB. He spends a lot of time arguing that Pankhurst’s previous party, the CP(BSTI), did not do so, which is kicking at an open door; by the time the CP(BSTI) fused into the CPGB in January 1921 it had effectively split into at least two factions. But the faction around Pankhurst certainly did see itself as an opposition, working within the new party to pressurise the leadership to expel ‘non-communist’ elements and move the party to the left (see Workers’ Dreadnought, 5 February 1921).

The reality of course was somewhat different. As former allies on the executive dropped away or moved to the right, the Dreadnought group found itself painfully isolated, and with the expulsion of Pankhurst and her supporters in September 1921 there was no organised grouping in the party to provide a focus for the wider resistance to the united front. But before we completely dismiss the idea that this was an early left opposition, we should remind J.M. that the Dreadnought group was first and foremost an expression of an international oppositional movement – Left Communism – which had a presence in all the major centres of the world revolution; it had a distinctive set of international political perspectives based on its analysis of the early degeneration of the Russian revolution, and, importantly for a small group in a hostile climate, it had its own press, in which to set out these perspectives to party members and militant workers. Moreover, despite its isolation, the Dreadnought group’s activity did have an echo, albeit a faint one, both within the party and the wider working class. The CPGB’s Portsmouth branch unsuccessfully protested against Pankhurst’s expulsion to the Executive (Workers’ Dreadnought, 15 October 1921), later joining up with her ‘Communist Workers’ Party’, and protests, expressions of solidarity and offers of financial support came from several other CP members, South Wales miners and, significantly, from the international communist movement (Workers’ Dreadnought, 24 September, 8 and 15 October 1921). By systematically denying that all this oppositional activity had any political significance, J.M. is effectively denying that there was any real resistance by revolutionaries to the early degeneration of the CI and its official party in Britain.

But here we must leave J.M. grinding his axe … The trouble with his arguments is that we spend our time having to demonstrate the very existence of opposition, rather than dealing with its very real weaknesses, let alone the lessons of its struggle. The left wing opposition in the CPGB in 1921–22 was a rearguard struggle by the party’s original left wing, primarily against the influence of reformism and to try to ensure that the party was based on clear, revolutionary principles. We don’t need J.M. to tell us with the benefit of hindsight that this struggle failed. The left was far too weak to prevent the degeneration of the party or its final betrayal, but what do we conclude from this? That it was wrong to wage this struggle in the first place? JM obviously thinks so, since his own conclusion is that the CPGB should have remained a propaganda group – inside the Labour Party (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 1, p. 226); not that he presents a shred of direct evidence for this. The fact is, of course, that there were people in the CP at the time who defended precisely this vision. They were the reformist right wing; people – like Edgar Lansbury and A.A. Watts, who called in the police to attack unemployed workers protesting against cuts in relief (Workers’ Dreadnought, 6 October 1923) – and who had spent too long in the old British Socialist Party winning seats in their local town halls and trade unions to break from obsolete methods of struggle. For the CI to have adopted such a liquidationist tactic in 1921–22 would have delivered the weak British party up to this reformist right wing and hastened its final capitulation. So much for learning from the past.

Historically, the left in the workers’ movement is characterised by intransigence in defence of the interests of the working class; Lenin, Luxemburg, Pannekoek in the Second International; Bordiga and the KAPD in the Third. The real weakness of the left in the CPGB was not so much the extent of its support or lack of organisation, but its fatal tendency to try to conciliate with opportunism and centrism, and its avoidance of a political confrontation with the leadership of the International. The tragedy with hindsight is that its basic insights were prophetically correct: Arthur Carford of Sheffield may have been over-optimistic in predicting a split in the CP, but he was absolutely right to affirm that ‘the opportunists have captured the CP’ (Workers’ Dreadnought, 14 January 1922), while ‘Perplexed’ writing in the Dreadnought pointed to the ‘drift to the right in the Third International’ (Workers’ Dreadnought, 29 October 1921). We owe it to these and all the other nameless rank-and-file party militants, who rang the alarm bells and at least tried to resist the onset of the bourgeois counter-revolution, to give their struggle the historical recognition it deserves.

Ironically, J.M.’s original article was entitled Rehabilitating Communist History. It should be clear by now that his approach is more about burying it. For daring to suggest a more informed debate on this subject, I am pompously accused of trying to ‘ride my hobbyhorse into the pages of Revolutionary History’. Well, pardon my impertinence! What we hear in J.M.’s arrogant and ill-informed reply is a firm shutting of doors to any such debate. Shame really. Some people might have learned something.

Martin Tomlinson

Updated by ETOL: 23.10.2011