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Reg Groves

Against the Stream 3

some recollections of a revolutionary between the wars

(March 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.56, March 1973, pp.22-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Busy indeed was the life in those times of the Communist Party member, and we were as busy as any. But there were occasional summer afternoons at cricket, and some Saturday or Friday nights when we walked through the crowded New Cut market with its stalls, its loquacious stallholders and its roaring naphthalene flares, to the Waterloo Road and the Old Vic, queued and paid five pence and climbed the stairs to the gallery; and saw our Shakespeare staged by Harcourt Williams and spoken by a superb company closer to the original text, pace and style than any before or since. And as we came out under the stars, into the rain-washed streets, odd words sometimes lingered in the mind as strangely apt to our party activities. Like the sharp exchange from the first part of Henry IV, when Owen Glendower says:

‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep’

and Hotspur retorts:

‘Why, so can I, or so can any man:
But will they come when you do call them?’

Would they come, indeed? During 1930, the party leadership produced yet another ‘front’ organisation behind which and in which the party could attempt – vainly – to hide itself and its political identity. This was the campaign for the Workers’ Charter – the name was based on the People’s Charter of 1837. The Workers’ Charter began with six points, immediate demands for those at work and those unemployed: the demands grew to nine, then to 15 points, but when, after nearly a year’s activity, a monster conference was held at Bermondsey on 12 April 1931, of the 316 organisations represented there, only 68 union branches and seven co-op guilds could be called genuine, non-party organisations. [34]

The ballyhoo lasted a few more weeks; the spirits refused to come from the vasty deep or from anywhere else. By June, William Rust was writing:

‘United front work is practically non-existent, as is shown by the weakness of the Charter campaign: our slogans are far too general, and the Minority Movement tends to be a duplicate of the party. We have not yet succeeded in organising the daily fight in a revolutionary manner; our revolutionary policy for the way out of the capitalist crisis remains abstract, and is mechanically presented.’ [35]

R.P. Dutt, too, found the Charter campaign unsatisfactory – it was liable to be ‘misunderstood as some kind of all-round programme of reforms, a kind of minimum programme to meet the crisis.’ This was not so. ‘The Charter cannot solve the crisis ... The Charter is not a programme in the sense of a programme of a party ... but simply “common ground” on the most immediate issues of the class struggle.’ But, went on Dutt, members, while fighting for these issues alongside non-party workers, should ‘spread the understanding of the revolutionary line of Communism which can alone conquer the crisis and bring final victory.’ [36]

Unfortunately, the freedom of thought and action required by a revolutionary party to change its points of emphasis and adapt to swiftly-moving events no longer existed. Initiative had been destroyed, improvisation inhibited. Those attempting to stimulate discussion on the necessary reciprocity between immediate battles and the revolutionary uprising, between objective and subjective factors, had been denounced and silenced. Even Rust and Dutt had not confessed until a dissatisfied Comintern had demanded that the British party should produce results commensurate with the objective situation.

The party members could but go on as before. The, programmes of immediate demands designed to deceive workers into an unsuspecting support of the party, deceived only the party membership. Such attempted deceptions and the continual and indiscriminate abuse of the ‘social-fascists’ of all ranks and opinions – an obligatory act if Comintern approval was to be ensured – made many socialist workers suspicious of the party; and the excessive attacks on the ‘Left’ as the biggest political scoundrels of all made the situation worse. An assured, firmly-held independent view would have enabled a flexibility of tactics and relationships to be possible, and in a rapidly changing situation, such flexibility, allied to a firm revolutionary position, was vital if the party was to influence events. But the revolutionary certainty was not there – only the ‘immediate demands’.

For the economic storm blowing across the entire capitalist world was becoming a mighty tempest. By January 1931, out of an insured working population of 12.4 million Britain had 2,662,824 registered as unemployed. Many hundreds of thousands outside insurance were unemployed but unregistered, or working but part-time. Nearly a million were on poor relief.

As the numbers of unemployed rose, the Labour government, which had long abandoned its modest election programme of reforms, and which had almost angrily rejected plans to provide employment, now turned to the orthodox capitalist remedies for slump – massive economies in public spending at the expense of the social services; cuts in pay in public and private industries and services; drastic cuts in unemployment benefit, in the period of benefit and in eligibility for benefit.

Throughout the cheap compromises, and now through the period of ‘tough measures’, the large majority of Labour MPs supported the government, and turned savagely on the tiny group of ILP members in the Commons who spoke and voted against the government’s broken promises and failure to act on behalf of the unemployed. When the Mosley plan for providing work was rejected by the cabinet, the Labour MPs also voted the plan down by 202 votes to 29, and went on backing MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas, Henderson and the rest. When the Labour cabinet appointed, in February 1931, an ‘economies’ commission headed by Sir George May of the Prudential, only a score of Labour MPs voted against it, the rest voting for it; and Snowden’s April budget, which pointed the conditions for subsequent economies, received also the support of most Labour MPs.

The May committee reported, recommended massive economies in social services and other state expenditure; cuts in the pay of teachers, the armed forces and civil servants; and a reduction in unemployment benefit of 20 per cent. The Labour cabinet went along with two-thirds of the proposed cuts, was considering, and might well have agreed to, almost all of the rest, when there was an angry intervention by the general council of the TUC, expressing adamant opposition to nearly all the ‘economies’. [37] Even then, when a cabinet vote was taken on the one issue made crucial and decisive as a condition of support by British, French and American bankers, and by the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative parties in the Commons, that of the cut in unemployment benefit 12 cabinet ministers voted for the cut, and only eight voted against.

Prime Minister MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to resign – or, at least, that was the story. Next day he met his Labour colleagues to dismiss them, and explain that he was now head of an ‘emergency’ government, a coalition completely dependent upon Liberal and Conservative votes. Only Chancellor Philip Snowden, Lord Privy Seal, J.H. Thomas, and a handful of junior ministers, went with him. The Labour Party was now the opposition, but an opposition rendered ineffectual and completely discredited by Labour’s behaviour and record when in government, by its sponsorship and acceptance of the ‘cuts’, and of the orthodox capitalist economics from which they were derived – the economics of enforced scarcity in a world of plenty.

For the massive retrenchment espoused by Labour as well as by the parties of capital, took place in a world where, for several years, output of food, raw materials and manufactures had risen steeply, far outstripping the growth of population. There was enough and to spare to feed, clothe and house the working millions of the world. But the remedy applied by the capitalist financiers, industrialists and politicians was the deliberate restoration of scarcity by closing the mills, mines and factories, cutting the wages of those still at work, destroying all kinds of crops including foodstuffs, letting land go out of cultivation, and limiting drastically the production of raw materials. The bread lines stretched across the world. One hundred million were estimated to be unemployed. In Britain, by the autumn of 1931, the registered unemployed totalled 2,824,774, and a million were on poor relief. The crisis of capitalism was plain for all to see. That its overthrow alone could provide reasonable provision for the people could now be plainly demonstrated. Objectively, for the third time since the war, the elements of a potential revolutionary situation were discernible.

On 25 August, the Daily Worker published the party’s pronouncement on the crisis. Its content called for immediate protest; but a hurried letter from myself, published next day in the Worker, and two subsequent letters which were not published – ‘the opening of a party discussion at the present moment is no way desirable’ wrote the political bureau – were inadequate, and in some ways over-cautious in formulation, mainly through anxiety to give the party leadership no pretext to exaggerate minor issues into monstrous heresies (a method learned from Comintern and Russian party leaders) so. blotting out the major arguments. As it was, one or two bogies were raised which were to haunt us for a long time to come; and it is possible that we would have done better to have spoken out irrespective of possible misrepresentation. [38]

As we came to see it, in those last August weeks and early September, the party’s forces were small, isolated from the main body of workers, unprepared, and immersed in operations and agitations unrelated to the development of the crisis. We communists were far too few to determine by ourselves the way things went. But there were leaders of the workers everywhere, active in factories, mills, union branches, trades councils, socialist societies and even Labour parties, hostile to capitalism and the employers, awake now, or partly so, to the ominous attacks on standards of living, prepared to resist and, maybe, in the course of the struggle, to go all the way with the revolution.

These local and industrial leaders would be to the fore, in the front line of the workers’ resistance to the cuts. Here could be mobilised a multitude of militants, close to the people and toughened politically by recent events. Somehow in each area a centre of struggle had to be created around which the workers could unite, debate and decide each step of the struggle. In many areas, the trades councils might provide this leadership and centre, but many of them had been reduced in strength, had expelled communists, and, as a consequence of the 1927 anti-trade union act, had divided themselves into separate political and industrial bodies. In such cases, improvised organisation might be needed – committees or councils of action.

What we did in south-west London – where our group numbered less than a dozen, and where the whole party membership in Battersea and Wandsworth amounted to no more than a few dozen, was to make contact with the active militants and socialists in our area. In the first few days of September, one or two of us visited the ILP branches at Tooting and Clapham. Both branches were affiliated, as were all ILP branches, to the local Labour parties in the two constituencies; both had supported the small group of ILP members in the Commons who had defied Labour Party rules to speak and vote against the government’s treatment of the unemployed, and so had clashed with local Labour Parry mandarins. We went to them honestly, saying in effect that though we held to our revolutionary views and would go on advocating them, and expected them to stick to their opinions, too, we thought we could work together to unite workers’ resistance to the cuts and for a socialist answer to the crisis. They responded generously, particularly in Clapham, and together we began to recruit from union branches, cooperative guilds and Labour Party wards, members for our committee, which was soon in regular session at the New Morris Hall in Clapham. In mid-September we threw a line of outdoor meetings across south-west London, covering Brixton, Clapham, Battersea arid Tooting, and these we maintained at regular intervals throughout September and October.

Parliament assembled on 8 September. The communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and other organisations called on the unemployed to demonstrate outside Parliament; crowds came, not only the stalwarts of the NUWM from every London borough, but thousands of others, anonymous, bewildered, indignant, shaken out of quietude by the raging storm of economic crisis, and now drawn together in protest.

‘We are fellows still.
Serving alike in sorrow.
Leak’d is our bark.
And we poor mates,
Stand on the dying deck,
Hearing the surge’s threat

As darkness fell, the crowd grew, stretching away under the street lights as far as the eye could see. In front of Parliament, the mounted police charged again and again at the swirling crowds of cloth-capped men ...

A tense excitement not felt since the General Strike was noticeable at all the local indoor and outdoor meetings. Where there were usually scores, there now were hundreds, and on occasions a thousand or more. The upturned, lamplit faces were serious, anxious, hopeful that the apostles of change, of class struggle, of revolution, would tell them what to do. Excitement grew when, on 15 September, the men of the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon refused to obey orders to sail, and, in tidy Navy fashion, took over the ships, ‘refusing to serve under the new rates of pay’. The government quickly appeased the sailors; but teachers and civil servants, not given in that period to militant protest, now marched and met in great numbers. In Britain’s major cities, the unemployed in tens and scores of thousands surged in turbulent protest, often clashing violently with the police. The men of money began shifting their cash away from Britain, government credit tumbled and on 20 September, a government set up to keep Britain on the gold standard was forced to go off it. On 11 October postal workers, civil servants, teachers, unemployed and trade unionists staged a 100,000-strong united demonstration in Hyde Park.

Somewhere during those first few weeks of the crisis, the balance of forces shifted, the mood of the people changed subtly, imperceptibly, and the revolutionary prospect receded – though the battle against the cuts went on, and, it should be emphasised, went on under the leadership of the local militants all over the country. But without clearly communicated aims and a related strategy of progressively extending struggle, the militants in workshop, union branch and at labour exchange had nothing in the way of political ideas and purposes around which to rally and unite the movement – except resistance to the cuts. No visible, acceptable alternative emerged to the hopelessly compromised and discredited Labour Party leadership, which foundered and faltered still more in the swiftly-snatched election of 16 to 27 October, described by the Manchester Guardian as the ‘shortest, strangest and most fraudulent of our time’. The combined Liberal and Conservative vote gave the ‘National’ government an overwhelming electoral victory and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Labour Party, which held only 52 seats, approximately its representation in 1910. Only our failure as communists to create – under fire – a revolutionary party allowed the Labour Party subsequently to restore its influence over the workers.

In the election, 26 CPGB candidates polled 72,824 votes; and 43,892 of these were polled in four constituencies where conditions were especially favourable. The central committee admitted:

‘In many cases the difference in principle between the policy of the CP and the policy of the reformists was not at all made clear in the election campaign ... The party has absolutely failed to express the revolutionary way out of the crisis in concrete terms that the masses can understand ...’

In south-west London, our committee, or council of action as we had named it (hopefully but, I think, wrongly) was expanding and recruiting support in local union branches, at regular outdoor meetings, and at the labour exchanges, where we now led the local unemployed organisation. The group had become the ‘Balham group’, and had been strengthened by the transfer to it of Jim Barrett, a party member of nine years standing; and by the recruiting of some younger people, Cyril Whiting, Maurice Simmonds, Bill Pyne and Isabel Mussi. By the early months of 1932, members of the Balham group were again engaged in an argument with the party leadership over the central committee’s ‘January resolution’. And by then, a few of us were in touch with the American Left Opposition, receiving its publications and talking over Left Opposition’s criticisms of the Comintern and the Russian party leadership.


34. J. Mahon, The Workers’ Charter Convention, Labour Monthly, May 1931, pp.283-286.

35. W. Rust, The Eleventh Plenum of the ECCI, CR, June 1931, p.221.

36. R.P. Dutt, The Political Situation and the Fight for the Charter, CR, June 1931, p.211.

37. P. Snowden, An A utobiography: ‘The only proposal to which the general council were not completely opposed was that the salaries of ministers and judges should be subjected to a cut.’ p.942.

38. RG, Daily Worker, 25 August, 1931; secretariat’s reply, 27 August 1931. Letters of RG 26 and 27 August 1931 not published; for fuller statement, see letter of RG, dated 15 September 1931, and published in American Militant, 10 October 1931.

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