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Reg Groves

Against the Stream 5

some recollections of a revolutionary between the wars

(May 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.58, May 1973, pp.19-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The central committee’s ‘January Resolution’ had been produced because of the Comintern’s continued dissatisfaction with the British Communist Party (CPGB). Not, as some suspected, because the Comintern wanted a revolutionary party and a revolution in Britain, or anywhere else, but because the Comintern, being transformed into a department of the Russian state, a state controlled in the interests of the dominant party caucus by a bureaucracy and a secret police, expected Comintern national sections to serve them, not the interests of the working people.

We, like most communists, had supposed that a successful revolution elsewhere would benefit Russia and its people. So it would, but not necessarily Russia’s rulers, whose power would be imperilled by such a revolution, unless they could control it as they now controlled the destiny of Russian people. The thought was no sooner whispered than brushed away – but it was true, though it was to be a long time before most of us would admit it openly, to ourselves or to others.

We went on uncomfortably wearing clothes that no longer fitted us, thinking of ourselves as more correctly dressed than the Stalinists; more determined defenders of soviet power, more truly communist. Our doubts were, if not dispelled, at least held in limbo by our respect for Trotsky’s brilliant mind, experience and revolutionary integrity; he argued forcefully and with a wealth of Marxist precept and theory that the Russian state owned all land and industry, controlled production, and distribution of wealth, and remained therefore a worker’s state, temporarily off-course because of wrong leadership and wrong policies.

It did not convince us deep down in our troubled and uneasy consciences, but it seemed better to let such profound and complex matters lie undisturbed; and to go on shouting that the Soviet Union must be defended – and that revolutionary uprisings in other countries were the best way to do it. We could not hope to escape calumny, but at least we could do battle on issues of our own choosing and so limit the area of misrepresentation and distortion to manageable proportions.

An early reaction to the January Resolution was a letter sent to the party secretariat drawing attention to criticism of party policy contained in that letter of 26 August, 1931, which was refused publication in the Daily Worker on grounds that it contained ‘incorrect and unhelpful opinions’. As the January Resolution contained similar criticism and admitted the errors in policy, would the secretariat now withdraw its statement? [50] The secretariat would not.

‘We are surprised that instead of seeing the Comintern resolution as a guide for future action, you are attempting to utilise it in order to justify your own sectarian and academic tendencies.’ [51]

We noted the reference to ‘Comintern’ resolution with interest.

These letters were read to the Balham group on 4 March. The group – which had discussed the January Resolution on three occasions, beginning on 15 January – resolved to put its criticism in resolution form: and at the meeting of 18 March

‘a discussion took place on the CC (January) Resolution ... a resolution drafted by Comrade Groves was agreed unanimously by the group to be sent to the secretariat. The group also agreed that representation be made to the London party committee for an urgent and overdue aggregate.’ [52]

The group’s resolution was sent on 1 April, the day of fools; in it the group questioned the central committee’s formulation on the party’s activities in the trade unions, which said that the trade union branches must be transformed

‘from organs of class collaboration into organs of class struggle ... The whole line of the party at the Leeds congress and since has been to maintain that job organisation can alone be the unit of an organ of class struggle; that the very structure, limited scope, organisation, constitution and leadership of the unions make them unsuitable as organs of class struggle.’

The group also pointed out that the two major features of the international situation were not mentioned at all in the resolution – the war in the Far East, and the crisis in Germany, where the Nazis were advancing to power.

‘The resolution was drafted at a time when the dangers in the Far East and the approaching crisis in Germany were clearly visible, and it should have set out the tasks of the party in relation to both.’

The group went on to call for a party congress, which was two years and more overdue.

‘We regard the amount and extent of the discussion allowed on the resolution to be quite insufficient. In view of the present unsatisfactory state of the party as depicted in the resolution itself, we suggest: full open discussion in the party and party press as a preliminary to a party congress, the date of which should be fixed without further delay.’ [53]

The group’s criticism was published in the Daily Worker for 14 April, with a reply from the secretariat which ignored the major arguments and accused us of ‘underestimating the trade unions.’ At the regular group meeting on the day following publication, the secretariat’s answer was discussed, and rejected indignantly by the members as inadequate as a reply and untrue in its accusations against the group.

At an aggregate meeting of South West local members held in Battersea on 20 April we defended our statement and enlarged our attack on the leadership and its policy. On 12 May, the group drew up its reply to the secretariat, denying accusations of underestimating the importance of work in the unions, and that union branches were, as the central committee resolution said, ‘organs of class collaboration’ or that they could be ‘transformed’ into ‘organs of class struggle’, a role for which they were unsuited.

In support of our argument, we quoted R.P. Dutt’s Labour Monthly notes, in which he asked,

‘Do the trade unions provide the means of mobilising the workers for the present struggle? To say this is to be blind to obvious facts ... Could control of the trade union machine be a means to leading the workers’ struggle? No, experience has shown repeatedly that this is nothing less than a constitutional reformist delusion ... the fighting front of the workers can only be effectively built up in the daily struggle at the point of production ...’ [54]

Even more to the point was a statement by Lozovsky, chief of the Russian-based and controlled Red International of Trade Unions:

‘That we want to explode the trade union apparatus and destroy it, of that there cannot be the slightest doubt.’ [55]

Balham again drew attention to Germany, and the international situation.

‘We believe this (a party congress) to be more necessary now than ever before ... The menace of war which grows in the West and the East demands a party united on the basis of conviction and belief in the line of the party. Only a full, unfettered discussion within the party can make this posssible.’ [56]

This appeared in the Daily Worker but without Lozovsky’s words, which had been deleted, and with a condemnatory reply by the secretariat. [57] Though the quote from Lozovsky had been suppressed, the Daily Worker published two articles by the Red International chief on trade union policy in the course of which he rebuked the Balham group!

On 3 May, another aggregate meeting of South West local members was held in Battersea, at which district organiser R.W. Robson, and other party functionaries were present, and spoke. We put forward the Balham resolution, and attacked party policy and leadership. Henry Sara and Harry Wicks were among our spokesmen. A few days afterwards, three of us received letters from the district party office.

Henry Sara was charged with ‘supporting the general accusations of the lack of integrity, trickery, cowardice, and stupidity which were levelled against the party leadership by Comrade Groves’. Harry Wicks was accused of supporting ‘the remarks of Groves which accused the leadership of the party of trickery, of being opposed to criticism and discussion ...’

The quotations varied somewhat, for letter number three said

‘it is reported that ... you stated that "the policy which has wrecked this local organisation has also wrecked others. Battersea represents the state of the party in other parts of the country ... it is not better but worse than in January," and for this you blame the "stupidity, hesitation and cowardice of the party leadership in the period of September to December 1931".’

The letters asked of us, did we ‘maintain these views ... on the present leadership and policy of the party?’ [58]

We replied, rejecting the ‘reported’ quotations as inaccurate and out of context, and pointed out that our opinions on these matters were set out for all to see in the Balham group resolutions and related statements.

Reports on the state of the party in several major areas were in the hands of the centre.

‘Let these be published in full for discussion in the party press and then we shall be in a position to re-assert our statement or to modify it.’ [59]

When the secretariat declared that the Balham resolutions were the work of ‘one or two well-known sectarians’ [60] it was clear to us that they were trying to isolate some of us from the rest of the group, so that they could demand our submission to official policy, or expel us. What the party functionaries did not understand was that the members were convinced that what was being done was right, and, in fact, not one was to desert in the hectic two months that followed.

Our aim, the aim of all, was to battle on and compel the calling of a party congress and the holding of the pre-congress discussion that could be expected to go with it; and in the discussion and at the congress present or criticisms and ideas to the party membership.

But it looked as though the party leaders were deferring announcement of a date for the congress until we had been subdued or silenced. We renewed our demand for a congress, while offering a re-phrased resolution paragraph on trade union policy which we hoped would make our position clearer, and harder for the leadership to refuse discussion or distort our viewpoint. [61]

Events were forcing us, however, into further immediate assaults on party and Comintern policy, so jeopardising our chances of securing a congress. Indeed, our situation had been rendered the more precarious, for impelled by the alarming situation in Germany, we had risked the publication during May, of the duplicated journal The Communist, containing Trotsky’s Germany, the Key to the International Situation, and the statement that the British section of the Left Opposition was now established.

It was published anonymously and circulated carefully and secretly; it was a reluctant, uncertain gesture indeed, and the response to it was a loud, disconcerting silence. Not all of us were convinced of the wisdom of it – but once done there could be no going back on it. We began pressing anew for a party congress, and for educational and agitational activity by the party over the situation in Germany. [62]

In June, Arne Swabeck wrote from New York of the Communist, ‘naturally we greet its appearance with considerable joy ... It is our hope however that you will be able, when the next issue appears, to establish a regular address and give some direction for the revolutionary workers ... how to get in touch with you’ [63]; and, several weeks later, ‘It is our hope that you will soon be able to have another issue.’ [64]

An address! Whose? We were too closely linked as friends, and as critics of the leadership, for one of us to come out as publisher of the Communist without bringing suspicion on all the others. To the affluent Americans we must have seemed reluctant martyrs – but then we were but privates in a tiny isolated unit of the army of world revolution, our armaments pitiable, our provisions scanty. Some of us were held back too by anxiety to make plain to our Party comrades that we were fighting for, not against the Party; and by the knowledge that whatever support we mustered among them for an inner-party discussion, a Congress and policy changes, would disintegrate if the movement appeared to be promoted from the outside, which it certainly had not been.

In those last few months in the life of the Balham Group, its Minutes show the members busy on routine Party work, but carrying on as well an acrimonious correspondence with the London District Party Committee, and the Party Secretariat, on four issues – on the formulation of trade union policy, an issue we had to put aside when told that no more letters from the Group on the subject would be published in the Party Press [65]; on the Party leadership’s proposal that the DPC should, like the CC no longer be elected by the members but hand-picked by an appointed ‘commission’; on the absence of any Party discussion or campaign on events in Germany; and on the need for the holding of a Party Congress and a pre-Congress discussion.

Among local concerns recorded in the Minutes was the problem of unemployed organisation and on this, too, we clashed on policy with district and national leadership. Efforts to rejuvenate the local Branch of the Party-controlled NUWM had come to nothing. The Wandsworth Trades Council had formed an association for unemployed trade unionists, but the Party had declared war on such bodies and ordered members to break them up. Bill Pyne, by artful and devious argument, had secured the Group’s permission to join the Association; his reports on it convinced us that we should support it and help make it an effective, fighting organisation among the unemployed. [66] The DPC rebuked us for this, and ordered us to bring our members and supporters out of the Association and enrol them in the NUWM. The Group ignored this instruction [67], and the Association, backed by the Trade Council, and, before long, led by our members, grew in numbers and influence. Many of the trade unionists we met and worked with then became supporters in the years ahead. Several months afterwards, the Party itself reversed its policy of destroying the associations, and ordered members to support them.

The Minutes show us maintaining or friendly relations with the local ILP branches, particularly the Clapham branch, whose New Morris Hall was often the venue for our occasional pubic meetings, socials and conferences. The comradeship which had begun in the autumn of 1931 with such staunch socialists as Sid Kemp and his brother, Alwynne Wynne and Miriam Knibbs, Ernie Patterson, Harold Ratten, and several others, was to endure until the coming of war scattered us all, and the old days were done.

It was at the New Morris Hall amid the excitements of late 1931 that we met Hugo Dewar. An ILPer for a couple of years or so, he was, in 1931, a member of the Marxist League, a small organisation of which none of us had heard, and which revolved around the unusual personality of freelance socialist and secularist, Francis Ridley. ML members had, we learned, been reading and circulating The Militant; and Ridley and an Indian member, Chanda Ram, had sent Trotsky a thesis on the theme that ‘Great Britain is at the present time in a transitional phase between Democracy and Fascism’, to which Trotsky replied at some length in The Militant, concluding,

‘It would be very sad if the critical members of the British Communist Party would imagine that the opinions of Ridley and Ram represent the opinions of the Left Opposition.’ [68]

Hugo Dewar had disagreed with the Ridley-Ram thesis, and now linked up with us and the ILP at Clapham in our campaign against the National Government’s ‘economies’; and presently joined the CP, becoming a member of the Tooting Local, linking up as an individual with the Balham Group in its struggle within the Party.

The district leadership was uneasy about our collaboration with the ILP, and sharply critical when we joined with the ILP in establishing a committee to organise the May Day demonstration. [69] Because of events in the Far East, we kept the joint committee in existence after May Day, to campaign against ‘imperialist war’ – Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 had culminated in a successful conquest of the province, and in February 1932, Japan set up there the puppet state of Manchukuo, a base for further military adventures at the expense of China, and maybe of Russia. The Comintern had ordered its sections to mobilise opinion and protest against this plot of the imperialist powers against the Soviet Union, and the CPGB had called for the setting up of anti-war committees; and the campaign shaped itself along the usual lines – the workers’ fatherland was in danger, Britain and other Imperialist powers were supporting Japanese aggression against Russia and China, and the workers had to take militant action against their imperialist governments; the Social Democrats, the Left Socialists and the Pacifists had to be exposed as allies of the imperialists. ‘Pacifism is the twin ally of the bloodiest imperialism’ wrote R.P. Dutt, calling for ‘neither imperialist patriotism nor pacifism but the active mass fight for the destruction of imperialism and the victory of Socialism.’ [70]

Hardly had these words appeared in print when the ‘Leninist line’ on war was repudiated: a Comintern-backed campaign was launched for a spectacular world congress against war, the public appeal being made by French pacifist Henri Barbusse, and addressed to progressives, liberals, pacifists as well as to the working classes.

The promptness with which CPGB members obeyed Comintern instructions and jettisoned orthodox Leninist policy on war in favour of attitudes it had alwayds denounced; the fervour and haste with which members argued for the new policy; the sight of comrades we had known and respected for years as principled Marxists and devoted Communists, distributing an appeal couched in liberal and pacifist terms for a projected world parade of non-revolutionary, anti-revolutionary and most non-socialist notabilities, should have shocked us into looking a little more thoroughly into our own ideas and actions and at the course we had set for ourselves. We did not. Instead, we championed the accepted Leninist position on war. We still believed that such departures from orthodoxy were temporary abberations from principles shared in common, the correctness of which we had – or would admit to ourselves – no doubt. We were still in the same psychological sphere as the people with whom we were in conflict – our differences, we told ourselves, were limited to certain issues. Even after we had been expelled, and were being ostracised and vilely abused, we continued to believe this; and some remained in that mind, making no reassessment, not looking behind causes to effects, nor wondering what obscure questionings stayed us from the absolute capitulation of so many admired and worthier comrades. When the appeal for the World Congress Against War was launched, and for a British pre-Congress at Bermondsey to precede the greater charade at Amsterdam, we opened what was to be our final campaign as members of the CPGB.


50. Letter, RG to secretariat, undated.

51. Secretariat to RG, 29.2.32.

52. Balham group minutes, p.60.

53. Letter, Balham group to secretariat, 1.4.32.

54. R.P. Dutt, Labour Monthly, Feb. 1932.

55. Lozovsky, RILU Magazine, 15.2.32.

56. Balham group to secretariat, 12.5.32.

57. Daily Worker, 27.5.32.

58. District Party Committee letters to RG, HW, HS, 31.5.32.

59. RG to District Party Committee 13.6.32.

60. Daily Worker, 10.6.32.

61. Balham group, minutes, 10.6.32, p.91.

62. Letter to secretariat 13.6.32; secretary’s reply 24.6.32. ‘Central committee resolutions’, we were told, ‘are circulated for discussion and carrying out, not for reformulation by party units’.

63. Arne Swabeck to RG, 8.6.32.

64. AS to HS and RG, 25.7.32.

65. Balham Gr. Minutes, 28.6.32.

66. BGMin., 8.4.32.

67. BGMin., 15.4.32.

68. Militant, 12.12.31.

69. BG Min., p.86, 13.5.32 & p.88, n.d., but probably 3.6.32.

70. Labour Monthly, May 1932, pp.267, 268.

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