Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Left-Wing Communism: An Historical and Contemporary Disorder

Dear Editor

Martin Tomlinson (Letters, Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 3) appears to be labouring under the impression that historical debate consists almost entirely of ignoring your opponent’s arguments and evidence, and emphatically reiterating the assertions which those arguments and that evidence have effectively demolished. At the risk of taxing the patience of readers, I will attempt once more to elucidate the issues in contention. In his initial letter, Tomlinson criticised me for ‘neglecting the real history of left-wing opposition in the early CPGB’ and for ‘trivialising’ the struggle of Sylvia Pankhurst and her supporters inside the party – despite the fact that this issue was somewhat peripheral to the history of the CPGB and certainly to the purpose of my articles (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2, p. 280). He proceeded to make three claims which I will deal with in turn.

1. Pankhurst and her supporters operated as a left-wing faction inside the CPGB. Tomlinson insisted that the Workers’ Dreadnought group rather than the Balham Group ‘was effectively the first left opposition in the CPGB’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2, p. 282). While, he claimed, realisation of this might make some historians ‘choke’, Pankhurst ‘continued oppositional activity in the CPGB’, leading ‘a left opposition within the CPGB to pressurise the leadership to expel “non-Communist” elements and move the party to the left’ (p. 281).

My response argued that these claims were exaggerated. There is no evidence that Pankhurst was ever active in the CPGB; as she was released from prison after serving five months on 30 May 1921 and expelled on 10 September, any activity could have spanned at the most a mere three months. The only question she ever raised regarding the ‘opportunism’ of CPGB members was addressed publicly in the Dreadnought, and she was criticised for not taking up the issue inside the party, a point which surely emphasises her lack of activity and concern for internal debate. Before she joined the CPGB she certainly declared her intention of establishing a faction with its own organisation, convenors and meetings. But Tomlinson provided no evidence at all that such a faction ever operated on the lines of the Balham Group. He provided no evidence at all that attempts were made by such a faction to expel a single ‘opportunist’.

Scrutiny of the Dreadnought from January to September 1921, the period when Pankhurst and her supporters were members of the CPGB, strengthens this view. During these months, it contained none of the careful, measured but sustained and fundamental criticism of the party leadership, the turn to the Labour Party and the united front that one would expect from an organised opposition. That we are dealing with individualism, with Pankhurst and other isolated individuals rather than an organised bloc, is suggested by the fact that until July there is scarcely any critical comment in the paper on the CPGB and the Comintern. The Dreadnought published Gorter’s response to Lenin, but much that was conventional. It was only in July and August, when she came under threat from the leadership, that Pankhurst herself penned a couple of critical pieces on the Labour Party and the united front (Dreadnought, 30 July and 13 August 1921). Finally, the response to her expulsion – a handful of protests, a derisory number of resignations and no ensuing internal struggle – is even in this context surprising and far from suggestive of the existence of a faction. Pankhurst had been deserted by the vast majority of her earlier supporters before the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) which she led entered the CPGB in January 1921. In sum: there is no substance in the statement that the Dreadnought group was the predecessor of the Balham Group as an organised opposition inside the CPGB.

Tomlinson’s rejoinder resorts to religious reiteration, although at times he dilutes his earlier formulations just a little: ‘… 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’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 3, pp. 381–2). His authority for this statement he now informs us consists of a single issue of the Dreadnought for 5 February 1921. However, the only relevant matter in that issue is an editorial which accepts the disciple and ‘centralisation’ of the party, assumes that the united front and Labour Party problems have been laid to rest, and urges in a single sentence the need to continue ‘the necessary impulse to the left’. Only the blinkered or partisan would accept his claim that a few vague sentences in a single issue of the Dreadnought provides authority for the view that a faction was at work.

Secondly, Tomlinson adds to my admittedly brief reference to the handful of CPGB members protesting against Pankhurst’s expulsion the Portsmouth branch, and he notes offers of support from ‘several other CP members’ (p. 382). So: another one or two angels can be discerned pirouetting on the point of a pin, albeit through very powerful field-glasses. However thoroughly we glean the left press, and Tomlinson is absolutely right to do so, the expulsion of a figure well-known in the party, and beyond, produced from CPGB members four or five individual resignations, a couple of critical letters, a donation from the Greenwich branch, and the eventual secession of the Portsmouth branch. By any measure, that was derisory, and my point stands. There was no fight inside the party against her expulsion. As for the ‘Communist Workers Party’ which Pankhurst then attempted to establish, Tomlinson is right to put it in inverted commas: the purchase of the Dreadnought group is suggested by the fact that Pankhurst’s new party was widely advertised but never formed.

Finally, and somewhat illogically, Tomlinson attempts to justify the idea that Pankhurst ‘led an early left opposition’ by stating that ‘the Dreadnought group was first and foremost an expression of an international oppositional movement – Left Communism’ (p. 382). If we grant the second statement, it does not justify the first; it does not substantiate the assertion that Pankhurst led a faction inside the CPGB. As an advocate of left communism, she had little base inside the party. She was an individual with little inclination or aptitude for building a faction. By the time she joined the CPGB, many of her erstwhile supporters were already disillusioned with both her and the Dreadnought, some of whose staff, certainly the activist closest to her, Silvio Corio, were not even CPGB members. Her biographer goes so far as to claim that when Sylvia joined the CPGB she ‘saw in advance that there would be no strong fight put up for the left wing. I realised that the left wing would collapse for the time being.’ (quoted in Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, p. 167)

2. Votes at early CPGB conferences reflected the strength of the left-wing opposition to the party leadership. My response made several points. Firstly, I noted the unanalytical imprecision with which Tomlinson used terms like ‘opposition’ and ‘resistance’. Voting against a resolution before its contents have become party policy is a very weak form of ‘opposition’ or ‘resistance’ – if it can at all be properly and meaningfully characterised as ‘opposition’ or ‘resistance’. Documented defiance of established policy or organised factional activity to replace the leadership are more precise and superior tests of ‘opposition’ and ‘resistance’ than legitimate participation in the party’s democratic process. Secondly, I pointed out that there is scant evidence for real opposition, for sustained, organised attempts to replace the line after it had been established: the evidence, while far from overwhelming, suggests that most of those voting against the united front or Labour Party affiliation accepted the decisions once they had been taken. Thirdly, I provided evidence to suggest that initial disagreement on these issues was diffuse, disparate and differentiated: it stemmed from a variety of motivations and represented a variety of positions.

Fourthly, the size as well as the significance of conference votes should not be inflated, particularly in the context of an infant party, still relatively federalist and democratic, certainly in relation to what was to come. Moreover, it was a party in which confusion about what the united front meant and entailed in practice was rife at all levels. Fifthly, it is untenable – because there is no evidence for it – to relate these votes specifically to support or sympathy for the ideas of Pankhurst, Gorter and an international tendency. They reflected a range of more amorphous ideas: anti-Labourism, party patriotism, syndicalism, the hang-over of left-wing sectarianism, the heritage of the Socialist Labour Party and so on. This was to be expected in a party born from the sects rather than from a split in Social Democracy in the heady years of 1919–21 during the Comintern’s first period of the imminence of revolution. After 1922, nothing more is heard of opposition (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2, pp. 282–7).

Somewhat bemusingly given his hostility to my argument, Tomlinson’s rejoinder substantially repeats several of my statements as if they helped his case. For example, I wrote: ‘I.P. Hughes did not see how the united front could work given the nature of the Labour Party in Liverpool.’ (p. 285) Tomlinson parrots, as if making a new point: ‘I.P. Hughes in Liverpool, for example, described a growing number of branch members who rejected the united front due to the reactionary policy of the Labour Party.’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 3, p. 381) I wrote: ‘Two Glasgow branches were reorganised.’ (p. 286) Tomlinson repeats: ‘Bridgeton had already placed itself outside the party.’ (p. 380) Bridgeton was one of the two Glasgow branches.

Tomlinson now accepts that the resolution on the united front at the March 1922 CPGB conference was carried ‘practically unanimously’. But he claims that the 31 votes against Labour Party affiliation represented ‘a rejection of the united front’ which those delegates had at the same conference more specifically approved ‘practically unanimously’ (p. 381). His logic is again partial and questionable, and while the two issues were linked they were not identical. The campaign for Labour Party affiliation commenced in August 1920 during the Comintern’s first ‘revolutionary’ period and predated the development of the united front in the following year. It was of course quite possible to support a version of the united front which premised alliances with the Labour Party while rejecting versions of the united front involving ‘compromises’ with CPGB independence such as affiliation to the Labour Party or working inside it as members of it.

Tomlinson simplifies the complexities of the united front and its practical application; he fuses together distinct tactics within it, and conflates confusion about what it meant and specific concerns as to how it should be applied, in order to conjure up a conscious, united left-wing rejection of the entire strategy conceived as a coherent political approach. The problems he cites in Aberdeen and Bradford, for example, related specifically to the question of entrism in the Labour Party, not to working in critical alliance with it. The difficulties in Glasgow involved the specific issue of the CPGB standing down election candidates where the Labour Party was standing, not the offer of joint activity. It was possible to support the united front approach but see this sort of thing as a misapplication of it, or indeed a right-wing deviation from it. I used the term ‘teething problems’. Tomlinson might like to ponder the verdict that initially even ‘within the party leadership there was a deep resistance to the entire united front conception’ (Brian Pearce, Early Years of the CPGB, in M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, p. 155). If we utilised Tomlinson’s method of exaggeration and conflation, we might conclude that MacManus and Inkpin and the other ‘opportunists’ who expelled Pankhurst were simultaneously part of the ‘resistance’ to the united front.

Tomlinson’s claim that my account – necessarily and consciously attenuated in a brief response – of the difficulties the CPGB encountered with the united front is ‘less than complete’ (p. 380) is fair comment if again evocative of Aquinas and angelic polkas upon pins. He adds to it ‘protests’ from three branches against joining the Labour Party, and the Pendleton branch ‘having problems carrying out the united front policy’ (p. 380). Granted. But for anybody with any reasonable sense of historical proportion, this does little to justify Tomlinson’s verdict of ‘strong resistance’ (p. 380) to the united front. He proceeds to cite ‘another source’ which I failed to mention, the party questionnaire on attitudes to the emerging change of policy. My comments on I.P. Hughes, for example, was taken from this very questionnaire. The variegated comments made in this consultative exercise are even softer, slipperier indications than ‘protests’ about joining the Labour Party or ‘serious resistance’ to the united front.

Tomlinson rejects my view that significant difficulties were laid to rest by the end of 1922. He claims that ‘members were still being expelled for publicly opposing the Labour Party and united front policy in 1923’ (p. 381). Despite his extravagant use of the plural, he provides a single example, Bill Gee, the veteran propagandist who always chafed against party discipline and who was also charged with involvement with an outside organisation. This, incidentally, was the only example to be found in the Workers’ Weekly for 1923. It scarcely demonstrates that ‘strong resistance’ was continuing into that year. Tomlinson completely fails to challenge my verdict that what was involved were relatively small scale, conjunctural, temporary, historically and politically understandable difficulties emerging in the context of sharp, strategic change in a relatively plastic party which was still in the process, politically and organisationally, of being defined.

Finally and crucially, Tomlinson repeats his central assertion: ‘While the Workers’ Dreadnought group was the clearest expression of this struggle [of the Comintern left wing] in Britain, the opposition in the CPGB to the CI’s united front and Labour Party policies was also part of this wider resistance.’ (p. 380) Far from, as he claims, ‘studiously ignoring’ this point, I explicitly stressed that he had provided no evidence at all to connect and conflate the diffuse, variegated votes at congresses, ‘protests’ and so forth, with the Dreadnought group; or to demonstrate that they were part of any ‘wider resistance’. Tomlinson’s claims involve sleight of hand. He simply asserts without providing a shred of proof that these votes represented ‘the left’ – a moment’s thought demonstrates that there was no such thing in the CPGB as ‘the left’ in any significant, conscious, demarcated, organised sense. He then illegitimately assimilates ‘the left’ which he has himself just constructed without a sentence of corroboration to ‘Bordiga and the KAPD in the Third [International]’ (p. 382).

This sleight of hand lies at the root of his errors. I made the point very clearly in my rejoinder: ‘… we cannot infer as Tomlinson does from votes at a 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 … Tomlinson’s attempt to assimilate the fragmentary, disparate and often individualistic questioning of the Labour Party and united front tactics or even members dropping out over them is an ahistorical exercise in partisan appropriation.’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2, pp. 285–6)

3. The ideas of Pankhurst, Gorter, Pannekoek, etc., represented the best future for international Communism. They should not be termed ultra-left … Tomlinson accuses me of errors, but provides no examples of such errors. He accuses me of distorting his arguments, but provides no details of such distortion. He asserts that I am ‘grinding an axe’ (pp. 281–2). Unlike him. The different positions we hold are clear: he endorses council communism, I am critical of it. We are, however, only ‘grinding axes’ if such perspectives are untenable, if in the specific context of the historical problem being analysed there is inadequate evidence to sustain their potential for realisation. And if we allow our perspectives to infect our methods of handling evidence and argument.

The history of left communism is worthy of study. But its reality and its potential in the Britain of 1920–22 were slender. I will not weary readers by repeating the well-known arguments that in the context of those years the CPGB was absolutely right both to reject left-wing communism and to attempt to use parliament, the Labour Party and the unions rather than, as Tomlinson suggests, abstaining from activity within them. Similarly with Tomlinson’s concern that I provide ‘not a single shred of evidence’ for a tentative, one-sentence counterfactual that in the 1920s the CPGB might have been better off building a fighting propaganda group in the labour movement: the arguments are rehearsed in different ways in Walter Kendall’s Revolutionary Movement and James Hinton and Richard Hyman’s Trade Unions and Revolution. Readers can judge from our contributions whether or not Tomlinson’s perspective is tenable or not, whether or not his sectarian problematic holds up historically for 1920–22 and whether my demand for evidence, precision and proportion or his method of exaggeration and inflation to constitute a fictive ‘left faction’ and his conflation of quite different politics and motivations artificially to construct ‘strong resistance’ to CPGB strategy best evokes the grating sound of grinding axes.

As I observed earlier, whether we term politics which in a period of working-class retreat insisted on revolutionaries retreating from workers and their organisations ‘ultra-left’ or ‘sectarian’ is not a matter of great purport. What is fundamental is that in the years 1920–22 anti-parliamentarianism, refusal to engage with the Labour Party and Pankhurst’s attempt to establish an All-Workers Revolutionary Union of Workshop Committees on a maximalist programme at the expense of working within existing working-class organisations as part of a united front represented a turning away from the working class and the possibilities of creating revolutionaries which presaged disaster for the emerging CPGB. The party’s early moulding represented a dual process with good and ultimately bad sides. Lenin and the Comintern educated the party out of leftism; but they inducted it into a subordination to Moscow which in the end proved to be fatal. We have to see and appreciate the whole process. Just as we can appreciate Sylvia’s pertinent warnings about centralism and subordination in British Communism and her warnings about the position in Russia without at all endorsing the politics she derived from them.

I will end with a point on which Tomlinson and I agree. Revolutionary History should not only deal with the history of Trotskyism, but should also address other communisms. There is, however, a proper means for achieving this end; just as there is a proper method of writing revolutionary history.

John McIlroy

Editor’s note: This correspondence is now concluded.

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011