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Reg Groves

Against the Stream 4

some recollections of a revolutionary between the wars

(April 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.57, April 1973, pp.22-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Up to 1931, most British communists had scant knowledge of communist oppositional groups abroad, though the names of many departed and expelled leaders were familiar to us through the Comintern’s frequent abusive references to them. Leon Trotsky, however, was known to us by his writings, and was much in the news. Exiled to Alma Ata in 1928, he was deported in 1929 to Turkey. In that year he asked for political asylum in England, the country to which he had travelled in 1902, after his escape from Siberia, to meet Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov, Axelrod and other Russian exiles. Labour Home Secretary J.R. Clynes rejected the application. [39] During 1930, Trotsky’s autobiography was published here [40], and occasional interviews with him appeared in the newspapers. But that there were organised groups in Europe and America supporting the Left Opposition and Trotsky was unknown to us – until one bright cold spring morning in 1931, I called at the ‘Bomb Shop’ in Charing Cross Road, to buy some pamphlets and say hullo to old Henderson, who ran it.

Henderson was short, rotund, brusque in manner, with bristling white hair, pointed beard and scarlet tie; his was the only socialist bookshop in the West End. An open-style shop – unusual then – it had been designed and decorated in red and gold and emblazoned with the names of past rebels, by socialist painter Walter Crane. Its defiant name, red doors and window frames, and display of socialist and anarchist publications, incited upper-class louts and their toadies to heave an occasional brick through the full-length plate glass door and windows, to daub blue and white paint on to the red, and sometimes to break in at night and wreck the interior. All this Henderson expected. What provoked him to outbreaks of shouting was the non-political behaviour of boys and lads from the ‘buildings for the industrious working classes’ which rose several storeys high above the shops in Charing Cross Road. All of us on our way to school kicked over Henderson’s dustbins and boxes; and on evenings and Saturdays in summer hit many a sixer through his back windows.

So when, in 1925, grimy and in working overalls, I walked into the shop for the first time to buy a socialist weekly, Henderson glowered at me, recognizing me as an erstwhile dustbin kicker and hitter of sixers, one whose younger brothers were still at it. After I had called regularly for some time, Henderson became affable, clearly seeing me as a brand plucked from the burning, and over the years talked helpfully to me about socialism, anarchism, and the books I ought to read.

On sale in the shop on that later day in 1931 were bundles of two American weeklies – Labour Action, run by Jay Lovestone, an expelled ‘Rightist’; and the Militant, published by the American Left Opposition, with articles in it by Trotsky himself, which appeared the more promising publication. The three of four numbers bought that day were passed round among six or seven of us – and our little world was enlarged. There were others, communists who were working for a reformation of the Comintern and its national sections, for a restoration of inner-party democracy, and an international programme of, not just socialism in one country, but world revolution.

Our first letters to the Americans were merely orders for pamphlets advertised in the Militant. But then Henderson’s supplies were cut off for not paying the accounts. He explained this to me indignantly, for he made nothing on the few copies he sold, and would be much out of pocket if he posted unsold copies back to America. We wrote to the Americans explaining Henderson’s problem, saying how important these isolated sales were, and telling them who and what we were, and what we were trying to do in the party.

The Americans were adamant. [41] In the end we had to order our own copies by post if we wanted to go on reading the paper. More letters were exchanged during the summer; but we made it clear to the Americans that we were not prepared to set up a Left Opposition group in Britain. We went along with them on much, such as the restoration of full inner-party democracy in the national sections, a diminution of Russian command of the Comintern, and a recovery of the communism of the founding fathers. And we were deeply shaken by Trotsky’s powerful indictment of Comintern policy in Germany, based as it was on the formula that social-democracy and National Socialism were ‘varieties of fascism’, or, in Stalin’s words, ‘not opposite poles but neighbours’; by Trotsky’s warnings of the disaster that would follow for workers in Germany, Russia and throughout the world if that policy was persisted in; and by his call for a principled united front of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party to check and defeat the Nazis. All these things we would raise in the party, and fight for, but as members, not outsiders.

We were reassured by Arne Swabeck’s statement that ‘the Left Opposition’s views are not at all those of splitting the communist movement but of unifying it, naturally expecting every Left Oppositionist to work within the party for our views, endeavouring as much as possible to remain a member of the party without however sacrificing these views’. [42] But in a later letter Swabeck wrote ‘our international secretariat, nevertheless, proposes that some concrete steps should be taken towards organisation in a preliminary sense’, and added: ‘Albert Glotzer ... youth representative on our national committee ...’ after visiting Trotsky, and the international secretariat, would ‘stop over in England for the purpose of being helpful in bringing our various contacts together.’ [43]

Another letter told us that Max Shachtman was also coming to England ‘to do whatever possible to help towards the formation of a Left Opposition group in England’, another from Albert Glotzer, staying at Kadikoy, Turkey with Trotsky, confirmed his intention of visiting England, telling us that ‘our task in England is the building of an organisation of the Left Opposition.’ [44]

Uncomfortably, we felt we were being hurried; that a decision was being thrust upon us. To become a group of the Left Opposition meant expulsion merely for ‘conspiracy’, for breaking the rules; and in circumstances that would incline our party comrades to condemn us unheard, and allow the party leaders to justify absolute repression of discussion by reference to the fabricated but nevertheless widely circulated and believed slanders against the ‘Trotskyists’. We all had ties of comradeship with many party members; the party occupied our waking hours, was our vocation, our social life. Our complete commitment was to the revolutionary party, which for us, at the time, was the Communist Party, however sadly it may have gone awry.

Our opinions had also been sent to Trotsky himself. He wrote, urging that

‘... the British Left Opposition must begin systematic work. You must establish our staff centre, though a small one. You must build your own publications, even on a modest scale .... It is necessary to have a steady, uninterrupted activity, analysis, critic and propaganda. It is necessary to educate our cadres, although in the first stages, few. When, in England, more than elsewhere, communism in a short time can conquer the consciousness of the wide masses, so can conquer within communism, in the same short time, the supremacy of the ideas of the Left Opposition, that is the ideas of Marx and Lenin.’ [45]

Trotsky’s arguments were reiterated by Albert Glotzer of Chicago when he arrived; and by Max Shachtman of New York – urbane, witty, a theoretician of agility and much experience. Meeting Henry Sara, Stewart Purkis, Billy Williams, Harry Wicks and myself, he took up the theme of setting up an open LO group. ‘Someone,’ he said in a discouraging phrase, ‘has to go to the altar, someone has to be sacrificed.’ The candidates for sacrifice looked at each other but said nothing. We remained unconvinced as to the wisdom of the course suggested, though we did agree that it would be useful to begin the regular publication of a journal. There it was left. We were not yet the British Section of the International Left Opposition; and it was to be several months before we became so. [46]

From the shadowy world of these obscure little meetings, we came out into the unheeding, bustling, seeming-invicible world of Britain’s rulers, the Britain of the National Government, now strongly in command. The revolutionary hours had passed, the multitudes fallen away in bewilderment or despair. Registered unemployment remained around three million; distress and destitution spread like a medieval plague. Here, indeed, the issues of the day were being debated in action among our fellow-workers.

Labour Party leaders – most of them out of Parliament – were denouncing ‘MacDonaldism’ as the head and fount of all offending, thereby diverting blame for the party’s disgrace and defeat from themselves to their former but now departed heroes, MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas.

Five members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been returned to Parliament [47], all intransigents; they rejected new attempts to curtail their right to speak and vote freely, particularly as those attempts were being made by those who had backed the MacDonald administration and all its villainies, and bawled abuse at the ILPers for refusing to do the same. ILP leaders and members, however, were divided on ILP-LP relationships, and not until July 1932 did an ILP conference vote disaffiliation from the LP by 241 votes to 142.

Politically discredited, few in number, inhibited by a reformist philosophy and by obsequiousness to parliamentary procedures and fetishes, the Labour Party in the House of Commons was impotent to check the government’s legislative onslaught on the social services and the unemployed.

The bright day was done; the aspirations and endeavour of 50 years were in ruins. A shaken movement surveyed the wreckage, and as the survivors of the disaster began picking up the pieces, it was plain to the most election-minded constitutionalist in the ranks that the government and the employers could be resisted only by action in the workshops and in the streets. So, as at the end of the General Strike, it was the men and women of the union branches, trades councils, Labour parties and socialist societies who took up the task of rebuilding the shattered defences of labour and of restoring the movement’s morale in renewed struggle against hunger, poverty and oppression. They were busy on labour exchange committees; on relief bodies and councils, fighting countless individual cases of injustice; they set up, through the trades councils, associations of unemployed trade unionists; but they also made public protest on ever-mounting scale.

In hundreds of towns and cities, union and socialist banners were lifted against dark winter skies; there were swirling, turbulent clashes with police, incited by authority to deny rights of procession and to use brutality in doing so. A long steady explanation and action began; a stubborn rearguard action that was after a couple of years to halt the capitalist offensive, and compel the enemy to retreat, and make meagre but encouraging concessions.

The battle had to be local – how could it be otherwise in the absence of a national leadership? The ILP was divided and uncertain, and the CP remained isolated and mistrusted. In the alchemy of a brewing revolutionary situation one vital element had been missing – a revolutionary leadership able to reach the masses.

‘The Communist Party’, wrote Tom Bell later, ‘was still isolated, through neglect of mass work in factories and trade unions. To remedy this a special commission was appointed ... The results were expressed in the January (1932) Resolution ...

‘Almost immediately, a group of Trotskyists appeared in the south-west district of London (the Balham Group). This group, headed by Groves, Purkis, Sara and Wicks, who had been secretly flirting with the local Independent Labour Party for a time, opened an attack on the central committee ...’ [48]

‘Almost immediately’ – as though, like Prospero’s spirits, we had been conjured out of the air! Tom Bell knew better, of course, for he had been attached to the group for a while, and had, with a companion, attended a few meetings. [49] He found nothing amiss – else we should have heard about it from district and national party officials. Our members were all active in party causes, and group meetings were concerned almost entirely with planning, reporting and discussing these activities. Policy discussions arose from that work, or from documents issued by the district or national leadership. Our ‘flirtation’ with the local ILP branches during the 1931 crisis and after, was open and public, not secret; and at the time of which Bell was writing we were not an organised group, much less ‘Trotskyists’; we were busy and convinced members of a party we still hoped would train, educate and organise a revolutionary leadership among the British working people. But our opposition to the party functionaries hardened as they became more and more openly the pliant creatures of the Russian bureaucracy, and we were increasingly aware that reform of the British party would require also reform of the Comintern.


39. Manchester Guardian, 19.7.29 and Daily Herald, 22.7.29 and 25.7.29.

40. Leon Trotsky, My Life, London 1930.

41. Arne Swaback to RG, 29.9.31. Earlier letters have not survived.

42. Arne Swabeck to RG, 9.8.31.

43. Arne Swabeck to RG, 29.9.31.

44. Arne Swabeck to RG, 26.10.31.

45. Trotsky to RG, 27.10.31.

46. A letter was received from P. Frank, of the Left Opposition International Secretariat, dated 9.1.32, but we do not appear to have established any formal relations with that body – about which we knew little or nothing – for several months.

47. The three ILP-sponsored candidates returned were James Maxton. Dick Wellhead and John McGovern. David Kirkwood and George Buchanan were sponsored by their unions, but refused endorsement by the Labour Party, so they joined the ILP group.

48. Tom Bell, The British Communist Party, London 1937, p.150.

49. There are fleeting references to Bell in the Rail group Minutes but he seems to have faded away after a time. See p.11, p.27 for references to his absences.

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