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Reg Groves

Against the Stream 2

some recollections of a revolutionary between the wars

(February 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.55, February 1973, pp.21-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Expectation was high among delegates assmbled on 30 November, 1929, at Leeds for the CPGB’s eleventh congress. And when they departed three days later, the mood was hopeful among most. Under sustained attack, led by the district committee members of London, Newcastle and Manchester, the new policies appeared to have been adopted fully. Many of the leaders most associated with the ‘old line’ had been removed from positions of importance – only 12 of the old central committee remained, and 23 new ones had been added. [21]

Yet it was a dusty triumph. Noisy and passionate debates took place in the hall, but the real decisions were made behind the scenes. The new leadership was chosen from above, not elected from below. A ‘recommended’ panel was substituted for normally elected members; there were to be no more ‘social-democratic methods of election’; the new CC members were chosen ‘for practical reasons, and their understanding of the present period, their experience in the conduct of class battles, and their capacity for carrying out the political tasks of the party’, making possible ‘the more energetic fulfillment of the obligations that are imposed on our party as a section of the Communist International[22]; or, as Wally Tapsell put it more succinctly, a leadership ‘which would strive to carry out the line of the Comintern’. [23]

Personal recollections of the congress have been blurred by rime, and its documents tell little, but re-read, bring only a weariness of spirit, an incredulity that these dry papers, containing only falsehoods and false-seeming, empty of disinterested argument, creative thought and humanity, could have been taken seriously by so many bright and brave souls among the small and mostly dedicated membership. A few vivid impressions remain of the congress itself – a recollection of Wal Hannington and Arthur Horner, the party’s only genuine mass leaders, in the shadows as being of the Right, yet vigorous and defiant in explanation of their views; a perspiring, brow-mopping Bob Lovell, of the almost non-existent British section of the International Class War Prisoners’ Aid, making vituperative attacks on [from?] the Left, as he defended the lurid stunts and provocative clashes with the police by which he secured newspaper headlines and approval and continued support from his Moscow employers.

I remember the resentful abasement of some of the ‘old line’ leaders as they strove to hold their places by abject and dishonourable ‘confession’; Harry Pollitt, now acknowledged leader of the party, was allowed to state his case for postponement of Daily Worker publication to the end of May, but without oratorical embellishments lest he carry the delegates with him. Later, he dutifully ‘confessed’ his error in having advocated such a proposition. Pollitt took Stewart Purkis aside and attempted to coax him into tempering his opposition; Stewart, unruffled and courteous, refused. And, distinct in the memory, yet puzzling, there was a strange little meeting almost conspiratorially arranged, between some London delegates, and the Comintern representative, Walter Ulbricht of Germany. We stood at one end of the room, the impassive, aloof Ulbricht at the other. Presently, we were beckoned before the presence. Ulbricht spoke in German, an interpreter passed his words on to us. We learned with surprise that all the great man wanted was an assurance that London members’ objections to Johnny Campbell remaining in commanding party positions were political objections not personal ones. It was left to Stewart Purkis to reply for us, and he assured the interpreter that we all had the greatest respect and affection for Campbell, but felt that he was too deeply embedded in the old ways and policies to perform adequately where the new policies were concerned. The interpreter, baffled by the amiability shown and the jargon-free vocabulary, juggled the words in the air for a moment before passing them to Ulbricht in more formal terms. The great man nodded at us, and faded from the scene. The interview as over.

We were uneasy about the way things had gone at Leeds, but reluctant to examine the full implications. Chiefly, we shied away from the matter of growing Russian party control over the international movement, and from attempting to estimate what might be happening in Russia itself. We told ourselves that Russia, a backward country, devastated by war, civil war and wars of intervention, hampered by blockade and capitalist hostility, was now engaged in a gigantic programme of industrialisation. Some measure of dictatorship was still required. Faults of omission and commission were due to these circumstances. Adverse reports on conditions in Russia came almost entirely from malignant and blatantly untruthful capitalist-owned newspapers and politicians, the enemies of revolution, socialism and the working peoples. How could we then give credence to criticisms of Russia?

Pushing aside our uncertainties, we threw ourselves into our party activities. In struggle and action differences would be resolved, errors on all our parts corrected, experience and understanding enlarged.

The Daily Worker duly appeared on 1 January, 1930, edited by William Rust, in itself a guarantee that it would be drab and colourless, and inhibited from experiment and adventure by fear of deviation. A series of wholesalers’ boycotts put a considerable burden on the small, overworked membership, who in many places had to meet late-night or early-morning trains, collect and distribute to local newsagents bundles of the paper. A declaration of war on ‘capitalist sport’ by the Comintern compelled the dropping of football, cricket and racing reports and ‘tips’; and as most workers could afford but one daily newspaper, down came the already sadly drooping sales.

When editorial board and party leadership inclined to blame the members for the falling sales, there were exasperated protests. Some came from members of the Battersea local; and these discussions, and talks between Stewart Purkis, Billy Williams and myself, led to a letter of some length being sent by me to the party secretariat on 26 February, discussing the role of a daily paper in the workers’ struggle, and suggesting among other things reporting in depth of major or unusually important industrial conflicts, bringing background, industry and the people involved to life for the workers everywhere. [24] These and other suggestions were ignored or brushed aside. Yet, by June 1930, Rust himself was complaining:

‘The whole party must face the fact that just as the party membership is small and stagnant, so is the circulation of the Daily Worker very low and unsatisfactory. The basic reason for the still unsatisfactory party situation is the mistakes of the leadership, which failed to mobilise the membership for a systematic and daily struggle against opportunism.’

The Daily Worker should be used for a ‘ruthless war against opportunism in practice, against right-wing passivity and left sectarianism ...’ [25] So the Daily Worker was not primarily a paper for working people but an instrument for imposing Mowcow-directed policies on the British party!

In early March I offered to write voluntarily a column called A Worker’s Notebook, over the pseudonym ‘Plowman’ and the offer was accepted. [26] I wrote it every day, helped out only by an occasional paragraph from Stewart Purkis, and took it each morning from South-West London to Tabernacle Street, using a sixpenny all-day tram ticket. The column went its troubled way until 30 May when, because of continual editorial suppression and alteration, I quit. Though most of the political differences that flared up were argued out in correspondence [27], the curious will find in published material some evidence of the differences that arose. [28]

Two paragraphs in the Notebook may be noted as indicative of our critical views at the time. One referred to an article by Bukharin that compared, with superb irony undetected by the party leaders, the disciplines of Jesuit and Communist. In commending the article to Daily Worker readers, the Notebook quoted a passage describing the Jesuit theory of subordination:

‘Every member of the order must submit to his superior, “like a corpse which can be turned in any direction; like a stick which submits to every movement; like a lump of wax which can be made to change its shape and to stretch in any direction”.’ [29]

That we saw in this an allusion to the discipline being imposed on Russian party and Comintern sections, suggests that our eyes were being opened to the real situation of the revolutionary movement.

Nearer home, and of more immediate concern to us, was another item commended in the Notebook – Freda Utley’s review of the two volumes of Lenin’s works, The Iskra Record. Freda, whom we first met and become friendly with when she fought Westminster as a Communist candidate in the 1928 LCC elections, drew attention to Lenin’s attacks on the ‘economists’ – described by him as those that ‘bow down before spontaneity, gaze with awe upon the posteriors of the Russian proletariat, and think it sufficient in the party press merely to reflect the drab day to day struggle, so that the workers read the paper once or twice and then say “awfully dull”.’ Freda went on:

‘Who can deny that “economism” is strong in our ranks? ... But, comrades, it is not enough to repeat the slogans “Down with the social-fascist Labour Government” and “A revolutionary workers’ government”, and feel that in so doing you have fulfilled the task of raising the political consciousness of the workers.’ [30]

Freda Utley’s worldwide researches into the textile industry had led to her concern over party propaganda and activities among the Lancashire cotton workers. Local and industry-wide resistance to reorganisation, speed-up, lower pay and mass unemployment was necessary – but was it not the party’s duty to make plain to the workers that the outdated British capitalist textile industry, facing growing competition from the cheap-labour, highly modernised textile industries of the East, would be driven inexorably to continuous reduction in pay and employment? And that the workers had to choose between going along with the employers in this desperate and ultimately ineffectual course to ‘keep the industry competitive’, or of taking the way of resistance to worsening conditions – socialist revolution, socialist internationalism and social ownership? [31]

To Communists it was axiomatic that in Britain’s older and major industries, capitalism could survive only by the lowering of living standards at home and the exploitation of colonial peoples and resources abroad. Stewart Purkis did for the railways what Freda Utley had done for textiles, and analysed the situation and prospects for the railway workers under capitalism. The railway companies’ decline was a crisis of capitalism, and

inside capitalism, all industries will increasingly prove unable to maintain both wages and profits ... That every railwayman may master this basic fact should be the main political concern of the revolutionary who participates in the railway struggle.’ [32]

The party’s political bureau denounced Utley and Purkis for ‘attacking the leadership that has a correct political line and is also paying considerable attention to improving the understanding of the whole party.’ [33] If the critical formulations here were not completely adequate, arising as they did from examinations of particular industries, yet the issue underlying the argument was a vital one, for it concerned the reciprocal relations between the battles of the hour and the revolutionary uprising which was the party’s supposed aim, indeed, the reason for its existence. How far we were as a party from understanding this reciprocity was shown during the dispute in the woollen industry in 1930.

Here were assembled all the essential elements in the revolutionary argument – a declining major industry, already afflicted by falling wages and employment; employers pressing for further wage reductions; a vigorous rejection of the cuts by the workers; and intervention in the dispute by the Labour Government, which took the form of a supposedly impartial inquiry and which inevitably reported in favour of wage reductions. Despite faint-heartedness on the part of officials of some of the unions involved, the workers voted down the recommended cuts, and were locked out.

Sent by the party to the West Riding for a week of outdoor meetings; walking the lamplit, cobbled streets of Dewsbury and Batley, watching the trams climbing the streets between rows and rows of little stone houses, gaunt silent mills and forests of smokeless chimneys; listening to the talk of locked-out men and women, and of the older men whose fathers or grandfathers had been Chartists, or radicals and socialists of the early days, it was impossible not to be reminded again of what the Daily Worker could have been – what might have been done here, in the lockout, given the character and quality of the people, their long traditions of struggle. Riches indeed with which to give life and colour to the presentation of the revolutionary cause.

As it was, the Daily Worker sloganised this struggle as it sloganised all struggles, large or small, making it faceless and drab. To anyone on the spot, the slogans appeared to have nothing whatever to do with the course of events, nor did they seem to have any meaning for those directly engaged in the battle. In the Bradford area the party’s main work, except for a parade of outdoor meetings, was the distribution of relief to locked-out men and women in need. This was organised by Isobel Brown, on behalf of the Moscow-controlled and financed Workers’ International Relief, one of the many party front organisations. A non-representative, nebulous ‘action committee’ met in the building, and there also Ernie Brown, Isobel’s husband, addressed the workers who came to the centre. The political content of his speeches was obscure – his speciality seemed to be ‘cheerin’ t’lads oop’, with a comedy style reminiscent of his native Lancashire. It was obvious that the party had no influence on the course or outcome of the battle, nor was it attracting to its ranks the more thoughtful workers.

Returning to London when the week ended, I reported to Harry Pollitt. He said nothing, asked me for a written report, and handed me a week’s pay, which I refused. Nothing came of the written report; and, after several weeks of unbroken solidarity, the unions decided to negotiate separate settlements and the workers returned to work. At a West Riding by-election held soon afterwards, the Labour vote fell drastically, the Tory was elected, and a Communist candidate polled 700 votes.

So brief a chronicle as this, compressing events as it must, necessarily emphasises disproportionately our opposition to the party’s leadership, as though this occupied all our waking thoughts and actions. It didn’t. Our time was taken almost, exclusively by our party work – the frequent parades and gatherings under a variety of banners; the sale of party papers; union branch, party group, committee and fraction meetings; as well as, for some, a deal of speaking, lecturing and writing. Opposition to aspects of party policies grew out of our party work and experience, and was intended as a contribution to the discussion and formulation of policy. We were not an organised group but close friends who talked things over, and who individually expressed our views openly to our party comrades.

Stewart Purkis, expelled from his union in 1929 for his party activities, but still strongly supported and respected by his fellow workers, edited, with Billy Williams, a lively cyclostyled paper, The Jogger; and, in collaboration with some Idris workers at the Camden Town factory, the Idris Ginger which, with its vigorous presentation of the workers’ grievances and its brief, simple exposition in each number of Marxian economics and Communist policy, came to be regarded as a model of what a factory paper should be. Both Purkis and Williams were active in the St Pancras local, on various LDC sub-committees, and busy among railway militants in the NUR and ASLEF.

Steve and Nell Dowdall, and my wife Daisy and I, were active in the South West London local, busy in various Battersea groups, finally being settled in the Nine Elms rail group, and responsible for the sale at the rail depot of the cyclostyled Nine Elms Signal, though almost all of us lived in Balham, and no; one in the group worked on the railways, much less at Nine Elms.

It was towards the end of 1930 that Harry Wicks first became associated with us, having returned in August to his native Battersea, after three years at the Lenin School in Moscow. As a lad working on the railway, Harry had joined the Daily Herald League, which in 1921 went over almost entirely to the newly-founded Communist Party. Harry went with it, helped to form a Young Communist League in Battersea; and took part in the production and distribution of the Nine Elms Spark and the Victoria Signal up to the time of the General Strike. Elected to the YCL executive in 1926, in the following year he was selected to be sent to the Lenin School. Harry brought us much – he had witnessed episodes in the struggle in the Comintern and the Russian party between the increasingly powerful Stalin group and the Left Opposition, he knew of man international controversies and personalities – and he also knew Battersea, its radical traditions, and its active socialist and Communist Party workers.

Harry Wicks was to join us as we renewed our criticisms of the leadership early in the year 1931.


21. Resolutions of the 11th Congress, CPGB, 1930

22. H. Pollitt, Lessons of the Tenth Plenum, Communist Review (CR), October 1929, p.567.

23. W. Tapsell, CR, July 1930.

24. Letter, RG to Secretariat, 26.2.30. DW Editorial Board’s reply 24.3.30

25. W. Rust, The Daily Worker, CR, June 1930, p.258

26. W. Rust, The Story of the Daily Worker (edited A. Hutt), London 1949, p.17. ‘On 1 April we introduced the Worker’s Notebook which became one of our most popular and pungent features and with which the name of William Holmes will always be associated ...’

27. Letters, R. Groves, to Secretariat, 22.4.30. and 14.5.30: Secretariat’s reply, 14.5.30. Letters, RG,30.5.30, to Secretariat and DW Editorial Board; Editorial Board replies 1.6.30 & 22.6.30. Sec. 4.6.30. & 8.7.30.

28. A Worker’s Notebook, DW, 8.3.30 & 9.3.30: 22.4.30: 25.5.30.

29. A Worker’s Notebook, 26.4.30; CR, April 1930

30. Communist Review, May 1930 and October 1930

31. F. Utley, Lancashire and the Far East, 1931: Utley, Cotton (CPGB) 1928: See also, F. Utley, Odyssey of a Liberal, Washington 1970.

32. S. Purkis, Danger Ahead, Labour Monthly, November 1930. pp.668-9.

33. The Theoreticians of ‘Left’ Sectarianism and Spontaneity, Political Bureau, CPGB, CR, January 1931, pp.11-18.

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