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Reg Groves

Against the Stream 6

some recollections of a revolutionary between the wars

(June 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.59, June 1973, pp.18-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With Part VI, Reg Groves concludes his account of the formation of a Left Opposition within the British Communist Party, and its expulsion in the gathering storm of the Nazi victory in Germany. Previous parts of this account, which carry the story from the 1926 General Strike to 1932, can be found in the last five issues of International Socialism.

In 1932 the ILP organised a national campaign calling for action to stop Japanese aggression. It was the Clapham ILP, therefore, with our agreement, that called an area conference on the subject at the New Morris Hall on 2 July, with Dr C.A. Smith as chief speaker. Seventy delegates were there from 30 local organisations; at the end of the conference, the organisations represented agreed to elect two delegates apiece to serve regularly on the anti-war committee. [71]

Thus, greatly enlarged in numbers and influence, our small joint committee became the South-West London Anti-War Committee, and was to provide us with a useful base for our work in the area for some time ahead. One of our first moves on the enlarged committee was to propose a series of open-air meetings on the critical German situation – meetings expressing solidarity with the German workers in what we still hoped would be a united stand by Social-democrats and Communists against the advancing Nazis.

For Hitler’s National Socialist Workers’ Party had advanced in Germany in apparent concert with the Japanese conquest of Manchuria; and by July 1932 the pace of that advance was accelerating alarmingly. From a vote of 810,000 in 1928, the Nazis had climbed to a vote of 6,409,600 in 1930, when the Social-democrats polled 8,577,700 votes, and the Communists 4,592,000. In the second stage of the March 1932 presidential election, Adolf Hitler polled 13,418,500 votes against the Social-democrat-supported Hindenburg’s 19,360,000, and the Communist Thaelmann’s 3,706,800. In June, street battles began, with the Nazis, protected by the police, invading working-class suburbs. A defensive pact between Social-democrats and Communists could yet influence that result, and rouse the German workers to battle against the fascists. [72]

Our public meetings were held on Sunday 17 July and on the following weekend, at Brockwell Park, Battersea Park, Clapham Common, and Tooting. The speakers were: Bert Joy, ASW, Pickering, TGWU, W. Jordan, Labour Party, Jimmy Lane, Syd Kemp and W. Simmons, ILP, and S. Saclatvala, Stewart Purkis and Reg Groves of the Communist Party [73]: At these meetings, reported the Daily Worker,

‘... a resolution was passed expressing solidarity with the German workers in their fight against fascism, and pointing out that a victory in Germany would intensify the war situation ...

‘R. Groves was the speaker at a meeting on Saturday, 23 July, attended by 300 workers, and Henry Sara spoke on Clapham Common yesterday morning. At both meetings resolutions were passed emphasising that a fascist dictatorship in Germany would seriously affect the position of the working class of the whole world, and declaring the solidarity of the British workers.’ [74]

Our main concern, of course, was the party itself; we still kept alive a diminishing hope that through it, the Comintern or the German CP might be persuaded to make an eleventh-hour offer of an organisational united front with the Social-democrats against the Nazis. We raised the German question at the aggregate meeting of London members in July, and there were bitter exchanges between our people and party leaders on the platform, but nothing was changed. At the elections 11 days later, the Nazis polled 13,745,800 votes – the Social-democrats 7,959,700, the Communists 5,282,600. It was the peak of Nazi advance – and the bulk of Social-democrat and Communist supporters still held firm. A united front for common resistance to fascism could yet prevail, but the shadows were lengthening ominously; and soon would come the night. On 9 August, the Balham Group wrote again to the party secretariat, protesting that nothing had been done by the party about Germany, urging the organising of a national campaign, and ending: ‘We would ask the party secretariat to see that the party fulfils its duty to the world revolution.’ [75]

Our attack on the World Congress Against War had opened with a letter to the secretariat from the Balham Group, saying that the campaign was ‘being conducted around a manifesto drawn up by non-revolutionaries ... this manifesto has received the support of a number of pacifists and social patriots. Many of the signatories ... played a treacherous part during the last war; some are confusing the fight to prevent war at the present time and others actually support the social system which makes the war inevitable ... the present campaign is being substituted for the mobilisation of the workers around the Leninist line against war ...’ Leading party members, the letter went on, had signed the manifesto; and the Daily Worker has given unconditional support to the campaign. The party should expose the unsatisfactory contents of the manifesto and mandate its delegates to the World Congress to fight for the Leninist line. [76] We received no answer to this.

On 13 August, the Daily Worker carried a report under the headline

‘Militant mandate for delegate – attitude towards world congress defined.’

At the meeting of the South-West London Anti-War Committee held last Monday (8 August) Comrade Wild of the AEU was elected as the delegate of the committee for the World Anti-War Congress.

The delegate was instructed to ‘give full support to any resolution, group or section of congress that stands for the following points:

(1) Unmasking of the League of Nations and its pacifist trickery, and the exposure of all capitalist disarmament programmes.

(2) Refusal to support capitalist war budgets.

(3) To explain that in all wars waged by the capitalists the workers should fight, not for the defence of their country but for the defeat and/overthrow of their own ruling class.

(4) Development of an agitation amongst the workers for full credit and trading relations with the USSR.

(5) Anti-war agitation and the building of revolutionary groups in the war industries and armed forces.

(6) Systematic education of the workers in the fact that the USSR is their country, and that the Red Army is their army, ready to do battle on behalf of the workers in any country.

(7) At the same time untiring explanation that the only guarantee of victory for the workers of Russia lies in the development of world revolution.’

Comrade Wild was instructed as above, only one vote being cast against and 28 for. [77]

On 16 August, a long article by J.R. Campbell – headed ‘The Anti-War Congress and its tasks – a South-West London resolution that is not militant but mischievous’ – said, among other things, that South-West London’s resolution needed ‘redrafting on the basis of a genuine fight against the plans of the warmongers and the cutting out of the phrases which conceal Trotskyist meanings.’ [78]

On the same day, Henry Sara, Harry Wicks and myself were summoned by London organiser R.W. Robson to district headquarters. When we arrived we found Willie Gallacher, Harry Pollitt and Kay Beauchamp – a well-connected mediocrity – waiting for us. Where, asked Henry Sara, was Robson? He would not be present, was the answer. Henry rose. ‘Robson invited me here’, he said, ‘and if he is not coming, then I’m not waiting’. And he walked out. It was neatly done, and probably Harry and I should have followed, but we were too surprised to move, and remained to face the inquisitors. Pollitt, startled and annoyed, dismissed Henry’s act as ‘mere liberalism’ and turned to us. Would we cease our opposition to party line and leadership, particularly on the World Congress Against War? We would not. Gallacher blinked at us over his spectacles – did we realise that we were doing harm to the party? Encouraging sinister forces? ‘Some very strange circulars are going round the country’, he said. The individual was nothing, the party everything, he went on. To talk about doing our own thinking was petit-bourgeois, and at the word petit-bourgeois, tiny bubbles of saliva began gathering at the corners of his mouth, and his voice became harsher.

Gallacher was personally a kindly and generous man, but certain political phrases seemed to set him off on an uncontrolled torrent of bitter vituperation. Pollitt probably saw the danger signal, for he now interrupted Gallacher to ask again, were we prepared to accept the policy laid down by the Comintern and the party and the discipline of the party? ‘Open the pre-congress discussion, Harry,’ I said, ‘and let it all be settled at party congress.’ He waved that away, hesitated, then went abruptly to a table on the other side of the room and picked up a duplicated paper. He brought it near enough for us to see what it was, but not near enough for us to read what it contained, or to be contaminated by it. It was The Communist.

‘This is the kind of thing that is being circulated among party members – can’t you see how dangerous it could be. And it is your opposition that encourages this danger – let me ask you again, Reg, and you Harry, will you now help to unite the party by supporting party policy and accepting party discipline?’ We stayed silent, knowing that once we gave such assurances we would be asked to disavow our criticisms, confess them as errors, and denounce any who continued in opposition. It had to be complete capitulation.

Taking our silence, rightly, as rejection of his appeal, Pollitt turned away, with a gesture of dismissal. There was no more to be said. Outside, an impatient Henry Sara was pacing up and down on the pavement. He seemed aggrieved that we had not followed him out.

Two days later, we each received a letter from Robson. To me and Harry Wicks, Robson wrote that in view of ‘your absolute refusal to state that you accept the policy of the Communist Party and will abide by its discipline ... the special meeting of the working bureau unanimously decided that you be expelled from membership of the party.’ [79] But Henry Sara, wiser than both of us, was only ‘suspended’ from membership, having avoided answering that decisive question!

His expulsion, of course, followed hard upon. The Balham Group was ‘liquidated’, but its members were invited to apply individually for re-admission to the party. None capitulated, despite stormy meetings and arguments, and individual appeals. On the Monday following our expulsions the party’s pre-congress discussion was opened.

Robson circularised group members inviting them to ‘a meeting for comradely discussion with local and district party committee representatives ... at 17 Defoe Road, Tooting’, exhorting them, somewhat ambiguously, ‘not to allow any personal relations to stand between their duty to the party and the working class’. [80]

The members went to the meeting, where they were subjected to cajolery and criticism, but all stuck to their opinions. At another meeting of the Tooting local, addressed by Dave Springhall, a lone Hugo Dewar defended the group’s opinions, and was duly expelled. [81] Then individuals were summoned to be interviewed, questioned, argued with, offered retention of their party membership, told all sorts of tales – until the group came together to draw up a letter to the district committee, saying:

‘Every member of the group is anxious to retain membership of the party ... and is willing for discussion between the group and the district to continue. The group, however, is in favour of open discussion before the party members and not ... of the district committee’s method of private discussion with individual members ... (with) no record kept of what took place ... The group is prepared to continue the discussion with the committee as a group and to state its case openly before the party membership either in the press or at aggregate meetings.’ [82]

There was no reply to this – the last thing the leadership wanted was open discussion of the issues, particularly as, a few days after the first expulsions., they had opened the pre-congress discussion; so the group issued a cyclostyled statement – To our comrades in the party from the ‘Liquidated’ Balham Group – about the ‘liquidation’, the individual expulsions, and the issues over which it had come into conflict with the party. This we distributed as widely as our numbers and support permitted. Stewart Purkis had been expelled for ‘disruptionist activities and political unreliability’, and in September, number two of The Communist was published, this time carrying an address, and articles on the expulsions, the World Congress Against War, and extracts from Trotsky’s Letter to a German Worker. [83]

The party congress was held in November, conveniently for us, at the Latchmere Baths, Battersea. We painted slogans on walls facing the entrance to the hall; and on the morning congress opened, Harry Wicks and I stood outside on the pavement, distributing An Appeal to Congress delegates from the Balham Group, which summarised our views on the trade union question, the united front, the German crisis, party democracy, and the World Congress Against War, ending: ‘We seek to return to the party and stand by our comrades in the trials ahead. To this end we ask the congress delegates to raise, inside the congress, the question of our return to the party: to demand access to the documents in which our point of view is set out: to allow one of our members to take part in the congress: and in so doing, help towards building a virile Communist Party, free from the bureaucracy which in the past few years has done so much harm.’

As we stood outside the hall, many party members who knew us scurried past with averted faces; a few showed hostility, and made threatening gestures; others, taken by surprise, accepted our leaflets, only to have them snatched from their hands at the door by William Rust. We saw none refuse his request to hand over the leaflets, even Wally Tapsell.

The congress and our activities were described as we saw them in A letter to Albert Glotzer, in Chicago:

The party congress took place in the middle of November. We presented a statement to the congress on behalf of the expelled Balham Group, and another statement was presented from the British Group of the Left Opposition. Outside the congress we painted such slogans as Not National Socialism but World Revolution, Reinstate the expelled Left, Release Rakovsky and return Trotsky, and several slogans of a similar character. In spite of threatened violence from party officials we succeeded both in distributing our material and in having delegates inside the congress. We judged it unwise for our delegates in the congress to make any stand since we could not afford to lose valuable party contacts. As it happens, this was justified because the congress was the most docile in the history of the party. The Right wing, principally Hannington and Arthur Horner, were in jail and were removed from the central committee, and the Left wing, as you understand, have been expelled from the party; so that all the resolutions and decisions of the congress were carried with very little argument. Resolutions were carried condemning the Spanish (CP) political bureau and approving their expulsion, and also approving the expulsion of Zinoviev, Kamenev and others, without material or discussion of any kind. A new constitution was approved by the congress, but has not yet actually been published, which allows in future for delegates to the congress to be picked by district committees on the basis of their loyalty to the party line, a condition which is quite a new development in the International ... [84]

In the closing speech of the congress, Pollitt said: ‘I ask the congress delegates to go away from this congress full of contempt, hatred and loathing for the miserable gang of counter-revolutionaries who, on the walls outside the congress, have written the slogan “Not National Socialism but World Revolution”.’ If, he went on, there were any in the congress who supported those ‘scoundrels’ but who had ‘not the courage to express that support ... if they dare raise their heads inside our movement ... we will smash and destroy them.’ [85]

Pollitt had acquired already the theology, style and vocabulary of Stalinism. Minor and major functionaries, and the basic cadres of the party had to acquire it too; to accustom themselves to perform the rituals of revolutionary struggle, to use the postures and phrases of the revolution, as cover for an expediency and opportunism which served not the workers of the world but the rulers of Russia.

We met many of our old comrades in the months that followed our expulsion – for these were months of continual agitation, of meetings, marches, demonstrations, of repression and arrests by the increasingly-worried authorities, until even the official movement was shaken into action and full-scale protest. Privately, our old comrades admitted the validity of much that we said, and were apologetic at the abuse being heaped upon us by the party. Publicly, they were silent.

To them the party had become all, greater than the ideas and ideals that had made them rebels and communists, which survived only in set phrases and formal declarations used to gain support for a party and an alien government that were discrediting and destroying those very ideas and ideals. They had, in Ignazio Silone’s phrase, ‘made relative what should be permanent.’ Our fault was that we went on talking like they did for some time after our expulsion; and confined our thinking to those Marxist themes emphasised and restated by a triumphant Leninism and written as dogmas into the life and work of the Comintern. We were not helped in this respect by our having entered the world of international Trotskyism, which was beyond our control and often beyond our understanding. Instead of clearing away political lumber and its jargon, the pronouncements of the international Left Opposition (LO) merely added to it.

That we survived as a group the expulsions, and the many assaults made on us by the party, was because we had support among the unemployed and trade unionists in South-West London. Frequent attempts were made by the party to oust the ‘counter-revolutionary Trotskyists’ from the Anti-War Committee; and we were paid a grudging tribute by London party organiser R.W. Robson when he told his district committee that there was only one representative and active anti-war committee in the whole of London. The principal reason for this was, he was sorry to say, that there were a number of Trotskyists on it.

As the British section, LO, we were invited to send someone to an enlarged meeting of the LO’s International Secretariat, to be held from 4 to 8 February 1933, in Paris. On 30 January, Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg, and it was felt that we ought to send someone to the meeting. A reluctant delegate I travelled to Paris, and sat through complex, heavily-jargonised discussions in French and German, with someone whispering occasional explanations in English, on Saturday, and again on Sunday, when every so often the proceedings were interrupted by hoots, howls, shouts, screams, the crash of breaking furniture and the thump of falling bodies from the room overhead where the League of French Pacifists was in conference.

That evening, walking through the streets of Paris with aching head and jaded spirits, I saw newspapers being sold on the streets, the newsvendors carrying placards – ‘250,000 at Hyde Park’. So the movement was on the mend, and even officialdom had been pushed into making an impressive show of strength – indeed, within 12 months the government would be in startled retreat. There was revival, renewal of struggle, but to what end? So that the working people could be sold out by shallow-pated Labour careerists, or duped by Stalinism? There was, too, something unreal in evening retrospect about the LO conference solemnly pronouncing on those controversies of the Comintern, and even earlier ones of Russian Social-democracy. Hitler and the Nazis stood on the threshold of total power. Surely there could be no true renovation of socialist ideas, or renewal of the forces and spirit of rebellion and resistance, in those old, obscure contentions, argued out again in the thick accents of a new degenerate communism?

Back home – and on 27 February, the monthly delegate meeting of the anti-war committee, and yet another attempt by Communists to remove the Trotskyists. They came primed with a suitable resolution; and the final speech in support of it was made by a tall, spare young zealot, Soderland. His shrill tones echo in the memory still, though not, fortunately, most of what he said. His voice rose to a higher pitch of hysteria as he concluded, jabbing a bony, accusing finger at us: They even want a united front’ – and he screamed the last words – ‘with the vile Social-democrats!’

The invaders, who built nothing and destroyed what others built, were repulsed again, their resolution defeated. A small incident, but as was the way of such things, we were elated as we walked home through the chill night air. Well might we have had misgivings had we known how fateful that night was to be:

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels

For on that night, the German Reichstag was set on fire, a dire combustion that was in due course to burn much, much more than Germany’s parliament. Immediately, though, the German CP was made illegal, the Nazi terror unleashed, thousands of Social-democrats and Communist officials and members arrested. Consumed in the flames, too, was the disastrous policy imposed by Stalin’s men on the German party and the Comintern. The Comintern now called on its sections everywhere to approach the social-democratic parties for a united front. On 8 March, just two weeks after it had ridiculed an ILP suggestion for a united front appeal to TUC and Labour, and nine days after Soderland’s speech, the CPGB did just that! Like sponges, the party members squeezed the old policy out of their pores and sucked in the new one.

Too late, of course. On 5 March, amid burnings, beatings, arrests and suppression of socialist and communist meetings and newspapers, Germany went to the polls. Seventeen million votes – 43 per cent of the total – went to the Nazis, the Social-democrats polling 7,182,000, the Communists 4,845,000. On 23 March, Hitler asked parliament for dictatorial powers and got them. The most powerful socialist and communist parties in Western Europe were destroyed without resistence.

If all this made any impression on the Soderlands, it was not visible in their words and deeds. William Gallacher, denouncing the ‘ignoramuses of Balham’, wrote that, ‘a well-known writer who has had considerable association with the revolutionary movement asked me if there was any possibility of a reconciliation between Trotsky and Stalin. [86]

‘Ask me,’ replied Gallacher, ‘if there is any chance of Trotsky and Hitler coming together, and I’ll think your question worth considering.’

The writer was horrified and showed it. ‘You are not serious,’ he said.

‘I am quite serious’, replied Gallacher. In August 1939, it was Stalin and Hitler who ‘came together’, in the bloodiest diplomatic handshake in history! And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges ...


71. Daily Worker (DW) 4.7.32. ‘

72. For Trotsky’s writings on Fascism in Germany, see The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, by Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder Press, New York 1971.

73. DW, 16.7.32.

74. DW, 22.7.32 & 25.7.32.

75. Balham Group (BG) to Party Secretariat (PS), 9.8.32.

76. BG to PS, 23.7.32.

77. DW, 13.8.32.

78. DW, 16.8.32.

79. Robson, to Reg Groves, 17.8.32.

80. Robson to BG members (circular) 17.8.32.

81. Hugo Dewar has written two studies of Russian repression of oppositionists – Assassins at Large (London 1951) and The Modern Inquisition, (London, 1953) and a History of the CPGB (unpublished).

82. BG to District Committee, 4.9.32.

83. Eight numbers of The Communist were published between May 1932 and May 1933, when the printed Red Flag commenced.

84. Groves to A. Glotzer, 7.1.33.

85. The Road to Victory, CPGB, 1933 – quoted in The Communist, No.4.

86. Pensioners of Capitalism, William Gallacher, London n.d.

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