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Steve Jeffreys

The Communist Party and the rank and file

(Autumn 1980)

From International Socialism 2 : 10, Autumn 1980, pp. 1–23.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It is sixty years since 160 delegates from the main British socialist groups met over the weekend of 31 July/1 August 1920 and founded the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The decision was historic and the delegates knew it. That Communist Unity Convention has had a significant impact on the course of British working class history.

This article examines the changing attitude of the CPGB to rank and file organisation in the trade unions between 1928 and 1945 – the years in which the CP abandoned its championship of the rank and file united front and adopted its present focus on unity with ‘sympathetic’ officials in a ‘broad’ or ‘popular’ front.


When the Labour Party was founded in 1901, its name – Labour Representation Committee – spoke the kernel of its politics. It stood for the representation of working people in Parliament. Reform and (for some) socialism were to be brought about through Parliament. The key point about the founding of the CP was that it stood for a different road to socialism: the rank and file road, for the self-activity of the working class in achieving socialism. It was born from the fusion of the direct experience of Workers’ Committees during World War I with the inspiration of Soviet power in Russia. Thus the CP’s founding resolution declared in August 18, 1920:

“The Communists in conference assembled declare for the Soviets (or Workers’ Councils) system as a means whereby the working class shall achieve power and take control of the forces of production; declare for the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary means for combating the counter-revolution during the transition period between Capitalism and Communism; and stand for the adoption of these means as steps towards the establishment of a system of complete communism wherein the means of production shall be communally owned and controlled.”

British syndicalism had been blended with partially assimilated lessons from the Russian Revolution; neither it nor British sectarianism had been entirely overcome.

It took the intervention of the Communist International (C.I.) to straighten out the early CP’s theoretical and practical confusion. The rank and file united front strategy finally adopted in 1923 and lasting until 1928 was an attempt to overcome the small size of the revolutionary forces by forging alliances with Labour Party, Independent Labour Party and other socialist and militant trade unionists around the perspective of mobilising the rank and file workers for action. In November 1922, Losovsky, the head of the Moscow based Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) argued:

“As far as Britain is concerned ... the aim must be to create, to marshall, to integrate the opposition forces, and the Communist Party will itself grow concurrently with the growth of the opposition.

“There must be established a relationship between the Party organisation and the opposition, which by its very nature is heterogeneous – in such a manner that the Communists could not be charged with striving to mechanically dominate the entire opposition movement.”

The formation of the National Minority Movement (NMM) in August 1924, and the activities of the handful of national sections and scattered local branches of the NMM between 1923 and 1928 were products of this pressure.

Between 1928 and 1935, however, while the CP’s rhetoric remained ‘rank and filist’, in practice it abandoned the united front for the crude sectarianism of Stalin’s ‘Third Period’ turn. From 1932, the sheer bankruptcy of this approach led any individual CP members to seize growing opportunities for building rank and file organisations.

But between 1935 and 1939, the CP’s line changed once more. The ‘Popular Front’ policy of forging alliances with forces led by bourgeois elements had far-reaching implications: it changed the purpose of CP industrial activity. The capture of the trade union machine became the principal object of its agitations: work within the unions became an end in itself rather than a means to the end of strengthening the rank and file’s independence from the officials.

One month after the outbreak of World War 2 the CP took a last ‘left’ turn. But its analysis of the union machine was unchanged. The perspective of building a new “shop stewards movement” in 1939–1941 was not a return to consistent rank and file strategy. This was confirmed when Germany invaded Russia on June 221941, and after this date, the earlier militancy was abandoned and the rank and file were expected to lead the national war effort. This was a crucial new development in CP thought, for they now saw the existing state as a vehicle for advancing workers’ interests. At the same time, between 1941 and 1944, the CP emerged as a small mass party.

Thus the CPGB’s break with the key Marxist notion of the self-activity of the working class, the perspective of building rank and file united fronts and Lenin’s revolutionary theory of creating workers’ states, coincided with large gains in membership and influence. Militant reformism and nationalism appeared to hold the key “in British conditions “. By 1945 the principal line of the British Road to Socialism (adopted 1951), the CP’s programme for the last thirty years, had been adopted. In it, the CP’s industrial strategy was effectively subordinated to the goal of reforming the existing state through trade union machine influence over the Labour Party.

1928–33: The rise and fall of ultra-leftism

The achievements of the early CP were largely undermined in the late 1920s. The British working class was badly defeated in the General Strike and the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy launched a “never again” campaign directed against the CP. At this point, in October 1928, Losovsky applied the ‘Third Period’ (revolution around the corner) turn to the trade unions:

“The masses must be organised and led, if necessary, without the trade union apparatus and against it; no fetish must be made of the trade unions; the reformist organisations must not be transformed into objects of worship ...”

And within a month, the NMM paper, The Worker reflected the change: “In the present period, when the reformists are ... endeavouring to isolate us from the masses, we must counter these tactics by coming to the forefront of the struggle as an independent force, and giving that kind of leadership which will win the masses confidence.” At a time when the CP’s membership was bleeding away – by the end of 1928 it had fallen from 7,377 to 3,500 in just over a year – the answer was “Lead as an independent force”.

This convinced many CP militants: the unions appeared impotent; the TUC was engaged in the Mond-Turner collaborationist talks; capitalism was collapsing into fascism. Action was vital. Harry Pollitt, NMM General Secretary, underscored Losovsky’s sentence:

“It is the business of the revolutionary wing not only to tell the workers when to strike, but also to be able to lead them against both the employers and the trade union machine.”

By 1929 Pollitt described the Minority Movement as “the alternative national centre for the industrial movement of the British workers”, and in the same month the NMM for the first time rejected its earlier political neutrality and issued a General Election Manifesto supporting the CP candidates.

In July 1929 the entire CPGB Political Committee was summoned to Berlin to meet CI representatives. There it admitted its failure to wholeheartedly embrace the new line and agreed that Pollitt should replace Albert Inkpin as General Secretary.

What this meant was illustrated at the August 1929 Sixth Annual Conference of the NMM: a new programme was adopted which no longer included the demand “One hundred per cent trade unionism” that had topped the list in 1928. Instead, the revolutionary workers were seen as often outside the unions, and so the key was to achieve “unity between employed and unemployed workers, between organised and unorganised.”

Despite the talk of “the united front from below”, the new CP strategy was not a rank and file one: it wrote off work within the unions and it viciously denounced those left Labour and ILP members who might conceivably work with them. It supported “factory committees” of militants and non-unionists against shop stewards’ organisations; it encouraged dual unionism among the Scottish miners and London textile workers. The impact of this turn on the Minority Movement was clearly disastrous.

Some CP members continued to operate for as long as possible in the old way. A wage cut of 2.5% on the railways in 1928 led to the flourishing of a new range of NMM depot broadsheets: The Hornsey Star, The Signal, The Kings Cross Star, The LMS Rebel. In January 1929, 12 NUR branches and 16 MM groups sent delegates to an inaugural meeting of the Railwaymen’s Minority Movement (RMM) Their campaign helped to lead the NUR’s July 1929 AGM decision to reject EC advice and demand the restoration of the cuts. As late as November 1929, 55 delegates attended a further RMM meeting. Local Depot committees were formed in London in Stratford and Bishopsgate which survived into 1930. But the RMM itself did not survive the CP’s sectarian approach.

By 1930 the NMM’s national membership had fallen to about 700. Johnny Mahon, Pollitt’s effective successor as NMM organiser (and in 1976 Pollitt’s biographer), explained in January 1930: “Our decline in numerical strength is not a weakening but is a purification and consequently the basis for a strengthening of our ranks.”

CP membership also fell. By the end of 1929 it had dropped to 3,200 and in late 1930, despite the onset of the biggest capitalist slump in world history while a Labour Government was in office, it had fallen to 2,500. Despite this the 11th CP Congress wholeheartedly endorsed Moscow’s “class against class” line in November 1929, Pollitt was confirmed as General Secretary and a CI proposal was passed to conduct Central Committee elections on a slate system so critics of the turn would not get elected.

Whatever line the CP had adopted in this period would have meant a tough struggle. Despite a brief spate of unofficial strikes in early 1929, often involving non-trade unionists as well as union members, the stranglehold of the class collaborators over the trade union movement meant there was no power to resist the catastrophic slump. Unemployment decimated the already tiny CP trade union base, and smashed what little remained of workers’ confidence after the General Strike.

Table 1: Unemployment, 1929–1934


Per cent of insured workers







General engineering







Shipbuilding & repairing














Railway service







Tramway & Omnibus







TOTAL (exc. agric.)







Table 2: Level of Strike action, 1927–1934










Mining &



















Metal, engineering
& shipbuilding






































TOTAL: all



















S: No. of strikes beginning in year
D/L: Days lost (000s) in year

But the pursuit of “independent leadership” in the face of such a situation was a recipe for total isolation. Not surprisingly, the Sixth NMM conference was the last. It completed the break with Arthur Cook (the ILP member and Minority Movement candidate elected General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation in 1924) and warned other NMM members like Horner, technically the new NMM General Secretary, against prioritising work within the unions. In November 1929 Horner was one of those removed from the CP leadership by the new slate system, and two years later he was publicly disciplined by the CI for “opportunism” after having opposed the establishment of a separate CP strike committee to that of the local lodge in an unofficial strike in South Wales. The Minority Movement was effectively dead.

The CPGB, however, was still obliged to report the successes of its “revolutionary” mass work line to Moscow. So in August 1930 Harry Pollitt wrote a MM pamphlet called The Workers’ Charter as a build up to a National Charter Convention in April 1931. The pamphlet sold 100,000 copies popularising the Charter demands: increased unemployment benefit, extended social services, a 7-hour day, a national minimum wage of £3 a week, reductions of rent, and the building of a million houses by the State. The Charter Convention Campaign represented an attempt to break out of the sectarian image now associated with the MM. The NMM executive recognised the problem in September 1930:

“It is necessary to combat the dangerous tendencies to sectarian and mechanical approaches which have already shown themselves. The sectarian approach is that of presenting the proposals as ‘our own’ programme, and the mechanical approach is that of presenting the proposals for the formal acceptance of the workers, by vote or resolution, without generating a movement in support.”

But while the “Third Period” style came under attack, its ultra-left content remained intact. Tom Mann opened the convention attended by 788 delegates from 316 organisations. But of them only 146 delegates were from 68 trade union branches. (This compared with the turnout of 2,000 trade unionists to a conference for the 40 hour week and against all cuts in wages organised in May 1931 by the Manchester Trades Council.) The CP’s Charter campaign failed. It didn’t lead anywhere. Reporting to the RILU in 1932, William Allan admitted that “after the conclusion of the Campaign all the names and addresses of workers which we had collected during its progress were pushed into a drawer in a desk and nothing was done with them for several months.”

The CP was forced to admit that workers were not responding to calls to follow “revolutionary trade unionism “. Instead, in a few areas, they were building rank and file organisations on a minimum programme. At the RILU in November 1931, Losovsky proposed that these new movements should be immediately squeezed into the NMM mould. But Pollitt, speaking after Ramsay MacDonald had formed the National Government and the Labour Party had been thrown into turmoil, argued instead for a “suck it and see” approach:

“These militant workers not yet associated with us are seeking to express their hostility to the trade union bureaucrats. Our task, far from stifling these movements, is to encourage them and stimulate them so that at a later stage, with the development, and our leading work, it will be possible to get political and organisational consolidation.”

The movements discussed were the Builders’ Forward Movement, set up on June 7, 1931, at a conference of 32 London union branches opposed to a new bonus scheme; Members’ Rights Movement in the AEU formed after the expulsion of signatories to a Daily Worker Metal Workers’ Minority Movement advertisement opposing the June 1931 national engineering agreement; an unofficial movement in BISAKTA which organised a conference attended by delegates from 61 branches and drew up a programme for democratizing the union and issued its own duplicated news sheet; a Reorganisation Committee among the boilermakers and a Rules Revision Committee among the furniture workers. In January 1932 the CPGB Central Committee formalised the shift in emphasis: the unorganised should be recruited to the unions; forms of organisation which were barriers between workers and revolutionaries should be dropped. The 1931 MacDonald betrayal was already boosting CP membership: from 2,756 in June 1931 it rose to 5,400 by November 1932.

The CP bulletin at the North London Holloway bus garage, Busmen’s Punch, was transformed into a monthly rank and file paper in November 1932. This followed the setting up of a London Busmen’s Rank and File Movement in the summer after widespread anger erupted at the sell-out of wages and jobs by union officials. In July 1932 the Members Rights Movement in the AEU produced The Monkey Wrench, a rank and file paper, arguing: “The Members Rights Movement has come to stay. Not a disruptive movement, as some would have you believe, but as a co-ordinating movement, a movement concerned only with the rank and file who are in the union.”

That autumn, inspired by the success of the busmen, a Railwaymen’s Vigilance Movement was created. The first issue of The Railway Vigilant appeared in November, and 35 NUR and 31 ASLEF branches along with 18 local depot Vigilance Committees were present at the inaugural conference on 3 December 1932. The motivation behind this movement was made clear from the start: “As in the case of the London busmen ... a movement, organised in the local depots and branches, and embracing all workers irrespective of grade or Union division, can be a most powerful means of defeating ... the wage cuts demands of the companies.” Other rank and file movements established in 1932 were the Tinplate Workers’ Unofficial Movement and the Port Workers’ Unity Movement. None were the direct result of CP policy: but all of them had individual CP members on their committees. These individuals recognised the few opportunities there were to build genuine united front organisations and got stuck in.

The 1930s rank and file movements tended to rise and fall with the issues that gave them life. Between crises their existence depended largely on their most politically-committed supporters – the CP members. Rank and file papers played a more central role than in the Minority Movement period: at low points the Monkey Wrench and Busmen’s Punch virtually substituted for the movement. Their programmes were immediate, economic and democratic, without any transitional or revolutionary rhetoric. The London Busmen’s Rank and File Movement, for example, pledged itself to fight within the TGWU against wage cuts, redundancies and speed-up, and for the closed shop, the 7-hour day and the election of all union officials.

The CP at first saw these movements as eventually fitting into the NMM framework. Pollitt admitted to the CP’s 12th Congress in November 1932 that,

“The workers have been forming their unofficial movements, which are embracing an influence and power that none of our Minority Movement section’s possess.”

But went on,

“We must initiate and develop such movements in every industry. But they do not represent 100 per cent the platform of the RILU, the principles of the Minority Movement. They are the first beginnings.”

The next step he proposed was the still-born suggestion of uniting the movements “under such a name as the Trade Union Militant League”. But notwithstanding this mechanical approach, the 12th Congress marked a distinct push back towards a trade union orientation.

1933–1939: from United Front to Popular Front

The rising crescendo of bans and proscriptions which greeted the new rank and file movements between 1933 and 1935 testified to the success of the CP’s return to united front work among the rank and file. The Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers expelled 12 members who organised a rank and file conference of 30 branches in June 1933. During the 1933 unofficial strike by 2,000 London dockers at Hay’s Wharf, TGWU General Secretary Ernest Bevin warned against “unofficial advisers, very often agents provocateurs for somebody.” At that year’s Biennial Conference he got increased powers to discipline TGWU officials. The TUC attacked the CP a week before its 200,000 strong demonstration against the treatment of the unemployed on Sunday, 5 February 1933: “We have received evidence that the Reds are desirous of making the occasion their own. They will be disagreeably, if not painfully, surprised ... The men whose duty it is to keep order on the march will see that their banners are conspicuously absent.”

They failed to ban the banners, but two years later barred CP members being delegated to trade councils and advised unions to bar CP members from office. When these Black Circulars came up for ratification the closeness of the vote showed the growing strength of the CP between 1933 and 1935. The CP had won the miners, the three railway unions, the AEU, the ETU, the distributive trades, the painters and the ASW against the Black Circulars. The General Council’s majority in September 1935 was only 1,869,000 to 1,274,000 – too small to be effective.

Making and holding recruits, however, was still not easy. George Renshaw, the CP London organiser involved with the Busmen’s Rank and File Movement described the problem in 1933:

“The Party does not work in the trade unions and factories as a Party, but as individual militants ... The Party loses its identity in the very movements which it itself has helped to create. The Party is 90 per cent in the streets and only 10 per cent in the factories. Yet the factories are the fortresses. It (the CP) is 90% non-union. Yet the trade unionists are decisive.”

This weakness was apparent at the ‘National Congress of Unity and Action’ called by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM) on February 24 1934: it was the focus of a National Hunger March, but only 245 of the 949 organisations represented were trade union branches.

1934, however, saw the bottoming out of the depression and the re-establishment of some degree of class confidence.

Table 3: Trade Union Membership, 1930–39 (000s)


Total members

Male members

Female members













































Table 4: Level of Strike Action, 1935–1938







Mining &

No. of strikes:





Days lost (000s):





Metal, engineering
& shipbuilding

No. of strikes:





Days lost (000s):






No. of strikes:





Days lost (000s)





TOTAL: all

No. of strikes:





Days lost (000s):





More CP members got jobs. By the 13th CP Congress in February 1935, 70% of the delegates had jobs and four out of five were trade unionists. Of these nearly two-thirds were office holders. Pollitt told Congress:

“The idea of the united front against capitalism, of active struggle against fascism, of active struggle for immediate demands and also of the fight for socialism, increasingly develops in the mind of the working class ...

“The united front is the class front of the workers, drawing all into common action to defend their wages and conditions, their rights and liberties, their fight against rapacious landlords, their organisation, their unemployment benefits. It is to protect their families and their class from the horrors of fascism and war.”

But this definition was to change quite radically during the course of 1935, with significant implications for the CP’s rank and file strategy. A new line emerged in Moscow at the Seventh Congress of the CI in July–August 1935. Dimitrov, head of the CI, laid down “lines for developing the united front on a broader basis than ever before contemplated.” The goal was to secure an alliance between Russia and the Western “democracies” against Hitler. So the Communist Parties were told to establish anti-fascist fronts which included elements under bourgeois leadership as well as a working-class core. Dimitrov argued:

“In the capitalist countries the majority of these parties and organisations, political as well as economic, are still under the influence of the bourgeoisie and follow it ... Under certain conditions we can and must bend our efforts to the task of drawing these parties and organisations or certain sections of them to the side of the anti-fascist people’s front, despite their bourgeois leadership.”

Within a year all qualifications had been abandoned. The united front was replaced by the “popular Front”: Liberals, middle class intellectuals, trade union officials – any group with establishment ‘muscle’ to press for a British-Russian alliance against Hitler – were now at the centre of the CP’s political attention.

The CP made anti-fascism and the Popular Front its top priority. The call by the ILP and the CP to march against Mosley’s Blackshirts in Hyde Park on 9 September 1934 had already proved the potential. In September 1935 Mussolini’s troops invaded Abyssinia; in July 1936 Franco’s troops began the Spanish Civil War. The result: significant recruitment to the CP:

Table 5: CP membership, 1934–39

1934 July


1935 Oct.


1936 May








The Popular Front turn accompanied a fundamental change in the CP’s industrial analysis. Trade union work took a lower priority since the class front was no longer crucial. But at the CP Congress in May 1937, J.R. Campbell also spelled out the end of the rank and file strategy within the unions themselves:

“It is in the workshop that the future leaders of the trade union movement can be trained. It is from the workshop that we can mobilise that overwhelming force that will push the creaky trade union machine into action on behalf of the workers, “(my emphasis – S.J.)

The job of CP union officials was to win the unions to revolutionism. Campbell continued:

“They must set their practical work in relation to the aims of the party; they must see that their task is not merely to raise the level of wages, but to raise the level of class consciousness; it is not only to make the workers see that their interests are opposed to the interests of the capitalists, but to make them see that the capitalist system is a menace to the whole human race which must be destroyed ... to see all these signs that the capitalist system is reaching the end of its tether and that therefore we must make the trade union machine not merely a machine for raising wages but one which organises the workers for the great historic task of overthrowing capitalism by mass action.” (my emphasis – S.J.)

The union machine and the union officials were now seen as the agency of change: the supporters of the Popular Front could not be alienated by encouraging self-activity and rank and file movements which might act independently.

The Popular Front turn did not immediately change the day-to-day practice of all CP trade unionists. In the aircraft industry, for example, they followed the 1935 Hawker Kingston strike by forming an Aircraft Shop Stewards’ National Council (ASSNC) and launching The New Propellor, a well printed monthly paper. It stood for stronger shop steward organisation and for the coordination of “the activities of all workers in the aircraft factories and the trade union branches to secure higher wages and better conditions. To secure through the trade unions a national agreement relative to pay and conditions of employment.”

In 1935 the 35,000 aircraft workers from 52 factories were covered by the national Engineering Agreement, and the suggestion that they should negotiate on their own was seen as a major challenge both by employers and by union officials. Many CP members were also nervous about suggesting the ASSNC should be “independent”. “PJ” wrote an article called Why we don’t want rank and file movements for Discussion, the CP internal bulletin, in June 1936:

“(The rank and file movement) is harmful because it represents a diversion of energy which should be used by the militant and progressive forces to win the union machine and because it tends to develop serious splitting activities which bring a section of workers into conflict with the trade unions.”

Secondly, he argued that there was no need for independence from the official machine:

“Would anyone propose building a rank and file movement in the AEU where there are already branches, area committees and District Committees and official union support and recognition for shop stewards and shop stewards’ committees?”

Several other articles followed debating the value of the railwaymen’s Vigilance Movement and opposing the establishment of a rank and file movement among the South Wales miners where in 1936 Arthur Horner was elected SWMF president. In 1937 John Mahon wrote “The union machine is used to express the workers’ demands” in South Wales – “the left” was “in control”.

The New Propellor, however, had a strong base: in August 1937 it reported a circulation of 14,000 copies in 49 different factories. The ASSNC was made up of delegates from shop stewards committees, but where there was no official delegate, any worker, although preferably a shop steward (and a CP member) would be accepted as an observer. In October 1936 the ASSNC decided to launch a campaign for the separate aircraft agreement – and the attacks on them by the full-time officials began. Letters were sent to AEU stewards asking whether they attended ASSNC meetings. In April 1937 Claude Berridge, the CP AEU London District Committee member was expelled for supporting the Derby Rolls Royce strike. On May 2 1937 the ASSNC called an industry-wide strike for the separate agreement to begin on May 25. In the face of this threat of independent action the employers agreed to meet the full-time officials, and the ASSNC called off the strike. By July 1937 the CP’s line against independent action had won through: The New Propellor forgot about the separate agreement and urged supporters “to throw all our weight behind the present national negotiations “. Some aircraft workers began arguing for a breakaway union, but the CP’s domination of the ASSNC meant this too got nowhere.

A similar reaction occurred after the defeat of the rank and file movement on the London buses in 1937. Once Bevin had smashed the ‘Coronation’ strike the CP appeared to virtually sit back and allow the dismantling of the rank and file movement. Bert Papworth, Bill Payne and Bill Jones were all expelled from the TGWU at the 1937 biennial conference, and the CP then allowed the Busmen’s Punch to fold. Bill Payne then formed a breakaway union, the National Passengers’ Workers Union which survived until the TGWU won the closed shop in 1947. This was one reason why Bevin allowed Papworth and Jones back into the TGWU with a three year bar on holding office in 1938.

The New Propellor, however, did not fold. What happened to it after July 1937 was that it tended to avoid direct challenges to the officials. As the war industry expanded, its circulation grew. In May 1938 it was reaching 51 factories; by October its circulation was 19,500. And in July 1939 the monthly print run was 29,000. The CP used it quite consciously to take the case for solidarity with Spain into the factories and to promote its own politics. It regularly reviewed Left Book Club and CP publications, and carried a Money we earn for others column and articles on trade union history as well as a humour page of jokes and cartoons.

The Popular Front period did not mean that individual CP members were inactive within the factories: between April and December 1937 YCL members led a nation-wide engineering apprentices agitation. In South London this spilled over into a “South London Shop Stewards Movement” with a monthly bulletin around the Siemens factory in Woolwich. Much of the fund-raising for the International Brigade in Spain was done inside the workplace or at the factory gate. But what the emphasis on the “union machine” meant – and its success (as with Jack Tanner’s election as AEU President in 1939) encouraged – was opposition to independent action from the rank and file: every demand was to be channelled through the machine. Far from using the growing confidence of organic workshop organisation to generalise class questions through building new rank and file united fronts, the CP’s orientation was on its demands for a “People’s Government” – a “mass movement to defeat Chamberlain and get a new type of Government” – that included the Liberals.

From Popular Front to United National Front 1939–1945

On Saturday, September 2, 1939, the day before World War Two began, the CP supported a call for all measures necessary to defeat fascism. Within days Pollitt’s pamphlet How to Win the War, was on the streets. It concluded: “The prosecution of this war requires a struggle on two fronts. First to secure the military victory over fascism, and second, to achieve this, the political victory over the enemies of democracy in Britain.”

The September 1939 New Propellor echoed this “anti-fascist war” analysis:

“Aircraft workers, and for that matter all workers employed in the engineering and metal working trades, have a key position in the winning of this war against German fascism ... Fully realising the importance and responsibilities of our position, we shall not be backward in providing the best possible munitions for our lads at the front.”

Its support for the war effort was combined with demands for better Air Raid Protection (ARP) for workers and their families, for the nationalisation of the war industries, and against “variations in the present custom and practice” by management, unless agreed by shop stewards. The issue even contained an article titled German Workers fight Hitler about the underground resistance in the German working class.

But three weeks later the CP’s Central Committee got the news from Moscow that the CI viewed the war as an “out and out imperialist war to which the working class in no country could give any support”. So the CPGB switched line and Pollitt was removed as General Secretary.

The new line appeared in the October New Propellor: between October 1939 and June 1941 the term “anti-fascist war” was dropped from its pages. The campaigns it mounted were in support of strikes, for better ARP, against profiteering and for the nationalisation of the aircraft and munitions industry, and for the extension of the shop stewards’ organisation. The CP’s interest in the rank and file underwent a marked revival. The ASSNC was extended to the “Aircraft and Engineering Shop Stewards’ National Council” in February 1940, and it renewed its attack on the trade union bureaucracy: “The trade union Executives’ policy of support for the war leads them to abandon the fight to defend the interests of their members. It strengthens them in their undemocratic practices, of which the speedy acceptance of the five-shilling offer without consulting the members is but one example.”

Over the weekend of April 6/7, 1940, they organised a “National Shop Stewards’ Conference” in Birmingham. The 283 delegates who attended came from 107 different workplaces. The resolution proclaimed: “Taking our stand on the basis of working-class solidarity, in wartime no less than in peacetime, we proclaim our determination to resist such attacks and to fight unreservedly for the interests of the working class in every field.” It contained no reference to winning the war and went on to propose a 14-point programme of organisational, economic and democratic demands including the co-ordination of “the activity of all shop stewards through a national shop stewards movement. “

This was central. The New Propellor reported the contribution of a delegate from a London aircraft works:

“He had spent 6 months in prison for his activity in the Shop Steward movement in the last war. Had we the co-ordination during that period that we now see is possible from this Conference, we should have turned the tide.”

In the same vein Wal Hannington wrote a booklet about the shop stewards movement in the First World War, ending: “The tide of working-class struggle will rise again as it did in the last war in defence of standards and liberties against the ruthless capitalist class which robs and exploits the workers in peace and war ... Those leaders who falter with the class enemy in this time of trial will forfeit the trust of the workers for all time.”

And in December 1940 Harry Pollitt, always ready to toe the line, wrote a pamphlet justifying the struggle for wages in which he lashed out at trade union leaders who claimed “this is a different war from the last one, it is our war”. He said:

“We noticed Jack Tanner was foremost in speaking against strike action at the National Committee meeting of the AEU on November 28. Jack wasn’t always like that. During the last war, and after, he was for the kind of policy we have been outlining here ... It was because of this that he got the support of the militant trade unionists in the AEU. Now enjoying what he used to describe as ‘the sweets of office’ when others had them, he goes back on his own past and policy.”

Despite the rank and file rhetoric, the CP’s strategy still remained ‘Popular frontist’: in industry their target was the union machine; politically, their demands were “peace” and “a People’s government”. Thus in the autumn of 1940 the CP launched a call for a “People’s Convention” signed by 500 people including 15 AEU shop stewards (among them Hugh Scanlon), Pollitt, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher (the only CP MP) and sections of its 1930s “intellectual” periphery. The appeal was to The Labour and Trade Union movement and to professional people and the October 1940 New Propellor listed the demands:

“1. Defence of the people’s living standards.
2. Defence of the people’s democratic and trade union rights.
3. Adequate air raid precautions, deep, bomb proof shelters, rehousing and relief of victims.
4. Friendship with the Soviet Union.
5. A People’s Government, truly representative of the whole people and able to inspire the confidence of the working people of the world.
6. A people’s peace that gets rid of the causes of war.”

On January 12, 1941, 2,234 delegates attended the convention, but trade union support was weak: only 27 delegates attended from 20 trades councils, 87 from engineering, and 31 from the mines; the 94 building and 55 ETU delegates showed the greater penetration of the CP there. The New Propellor only listed 12 shop stewards committees as having elected delegates in its pre-Convention edition. Nonetheless the size of the Convention did express something of a threat to national unanimity, and Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, decided to suppress the Daily Worker on January 24, 1941. The CP denounced the ban as the first step towards surrender to fascism. It was finally lifted in August 1942, a year after the CP’s line had undergone another 180 degree turn.

During its “imperialist war” phase CP membership probably declined a little, but respect for its defence of class interests grew. Prices rose 50% between 1938 and 1941; the phoney war lasted nine months; when bombing began ARP was in a pitiful state in working class areas. The boom in war industries and Bevin’s Essential Work Order Legislation of March 1941 gave renewed confidence to union workshop organisation. By May 1940 the New Propellor’s circulation had climbed to 45,000. The CP in Coventry began to grow after the autumn 1940 blitz from just 70 to 2,000–3,000 in 1943. Furthermore while there were no factory groups in 1940, by September 1942 there were 40.

The German invasion of Russia on Sunday June 22, 1941, totally changed the CP’s tune. Within four days Pollitt was restored as General Secretary arguing for a

“united national front of all who are for Hitler’s defeat. Our fight is not against the Churchill Government, but against those who are secret friends of Hitler.”

The more intellectual CP leadership produced the theoretical justification for the overnight change: Dona Torr wrote:

“Since June 22, 1941, two events of a kind unknown to history have taken place. (1) In the midst of a world war, an attack is made by one imperialist group on a socialist state. (2) An imperialist war merges with and is transformed on one side into a war of liberation.”

After June 22, 1941, the CP argued the peak of class consciousness lay in the battle for production. Torr summed up the new ‘Marxism’:

’Today the task is to intensify the resistance to Hitler and aid for the USSR by the ever-growing participation and initiative of the working class in everything which can add strength and unity to the national and international front. Hence the primary importance of initiative and full participation in increasing production and ensuring the efficient use of materials and manpower.”

The New Propellor also turned: it no longer supported strikes; in August 1941 an article End Sunday Work Proposals at Vickers protested against management’s decision to stop Sunday working; immediately the space given to the Money we earn for others column was cut – and by October 1941 it was axed altogether. The major post-invasion initiative taken by the CP was to popularise the proposal first made by Bevin in December 1940 for Joint Production Committees at plant level between management and shop stewards. The call was agreed by the 1,237 delegates who attended the shop stewards’ conference organised by the still broader “Engineering and Allied Trades Shop Stewards’ National Council” (EATSSNC) on October 19, 1941. JPCs were at first resisted by many managements but in March 1942 the Engineering Employers’ Association finally agreed to terms of reference and rules of election. The EATSSNC then issued a pamphlet Joint Production Committees: how to get the best results which stressed their policing role:

“It must be recognised that organised workers cannot tolerate indiscipline. Workers who do not appreciate the part they play in the anti-fascist war, and who absent themselves from work without cause, should be referred to the shop stewards. This could mean prosecution or transfer to the army.”

After 1941 the CP’s industrial strategy was threefold: (1) To maximise the drive for war production; (2) To build up union organisation and work in the branches to capture positions in the machine; (3) To strengthen shop stewards’ organisation within the factory.

On occasions individual CP members did take and support strike action, as at Dunlop’s in Coventry in 1944 against the victimisation of a leading CP member. But their general position was one of “No strikes while the war lasts”: they would argue against strikes in meetings, and if they could break the strike would cross picket lines. They actually maintained this line right up until 1947 when Stalin’s relationship with the British Government finally cooled.

The advocacy of “responsibility” by the otherwise most class-conscious elements in the mushrooming workshop organisations had a major impact. The Ministry of Labour and National Service gloated in 1947 that “The yearly average amount of time lost during the war years 1939 to 1945 was approximately 35 per cent of what it was during the previous war years 1914–1918 and about 58 per cent of the yearly average for the twelve years 1927 to 1938, immediately preceding the outbreak of the war. “

And although strikes had become more frequent as unemployment disappeared and trade union rights were strongly institutionalised – the numbers of engineering workers doubled from 1.5m in mid-1939 to 3m by mid-1943, when 4,500 JPC’s were in existence – their individual impact was much reduced: each strike recorded from 1941 to 1945 caused an average 1,195 days’ lost production, compared with the pre-war five years 1935–1939 figure of 2,352. Often, when the CP couldn’t prevent a stoppage taking place it was still instrumental in stopping solidarity action and in getting an early resumption.

In August 1942 the CP produced a 2d mass sale pamphlet Clear out Hitler’s Agents against the British Trotskyists who still viewed the war as an imperialist struggle but because of its anti-fascist form gave it “military but not political” support:

“There is a group of people in Britain masquerading as socialists in order to cover up their fascist activities ... They go among the factories, shipyards and coalfields, in the Labour, Co-operative and Trade Union organisations ... They are called Trotskyists ... Trotsky’s men are Hitler’s men ...

“They talk about these bosses’ profits. They try to take the heart out of the worker. ‘Why slave when you are only piling up money for the boss?’ they say.

“They want you to go slow, not to give your best work, to be misled by their talk of strikes and the bosses profits into sabotaging our troops and the Red Army ...

“Clear them out of every working class organisation and position.”

On the inside back page there was a special “Warning” box for the too enthusiastic Trotsky-fascist hater: “Many workers, trade unionists and Labour Party members unthinkingly express views which sound Trotskyism Don’t confuse these honest but muddled opinions with Trotskyism.” Among these “honest” workers were no doubt, most of the 30,384 who were prosecuted and 2,063 jailed under war regulations in the five years from 1940 to 1944.

The CP’s stress on class pride in the war effort undoubtedly went with the stream. In his study of the Coventry CP in World War Two, James Hinton points out that “Crucial to CP success after 1941 was that unlike the Labour Party, the CP found ways of supporting the war effort and the Churchill Government which were compatible with the most fervent and determined public political campaigning.”

But the opportunities which full employment provided for rapid recruitment to trade unions was another area where the CP could marry class consciousness and the national interest. Two key unions in which the CP had worked for years, the AEU and the ETU, both virtually doubled in size between 1939 and 1944. Nationally trade union membership rose from 6.3 million in 1939 to 7.9 million in 1945. And the CP’s machine orientation finally bore substantial fruit. In 1942 Wal Hannington was elected AEU National Organiser and Joe Scott first won the Executive seat which was passed down later to Claude Berridge and Reg Birch. The London busmen, Bert Papworth and Bill Jones were re-elected to the TGWU Executive and Papworth was elected to the TUC General Council in 1943.

By 1944 any remaining notion of the trade unions as machinery for “overthrowing” capitalism had gone. A CP EC policy document declared:

“The State planning of peace production and control of economy will only be effective if it has the full backing and co-operation of the organised workers ...

“The Trade Unions have a vital part to play in any democratic system of State control. The Government must at every stage take the unions fully into its confidence and build on their fullest co-operation.”

And this marriage of nationalism with nationalisation was highly successful. CP membership more than doubled in the eighteen months after Russia’s entry into the war and stayed above 40,000 until the Cold War broke in 1947:

Table 6: CP membership, 1939–1948






December 1942












Ted Bramley, London CP District Secretary, wrote in 1943:

“20,000 Londoners have joined the Communist Party in 12 months. Today there are 25,000 members – 140 branches – 800 factory organisations and 400 residential organisations. This is the most momentous thing which has happened in the Labour Movement in the last 30 years ... No less than 250 Trade Union Executive Committee and District Committeemen and over 2,500 Shop Stewards – Ticket Stewards – Union representatives have joined. Over 85 per cent of the members are in the Trade Unions.”

The face of the CP was indeed changed. Almost at a stroke a significant penetration was secured in a range of unions where it has survived ever since. The credentials reports for the 1943 and 1944 CP Congresses are revealing:

Table 7: Summary of CP Congress Credentials Reports, 1943 and 1944
Numbers of Delegates

















CAWU (i)






AScW (ii)






















(i) Now APEX

of which:

(ii) Now ASTMS




na: Not available




Avg. age (years)




(If you add some thirty years to the average age of CP delegates at its closest point to being a small mass party, their retiring age clearly occurred sometime in the 1970s – the decade which witnessed the massive erosion of CP industrial strength.)

To co-ordinate the trade union work of the mass influx of trade unionists in 1942 and 1943, the CP’s industrial department set up a chain of “Industrial Advisory Committees “. These were made up of leading CP members in particular unions and industries and CP full-timers, usually Peter Kerrigan, the national Industrial Organiser, and they decided who should stand in particular union elections and how the campaign should be fought. The idea of a united front between CP and non-CP members was not raised. In one sense the CP had become such a front itself: it had recruited its 1939–41 periphery by adapting its line on the war to theirs. It was now a “Popular Front” party.

Unlike the ILP or the Trotskyists, the CP was, however, based in the factories. This orientation meant that it coped much better with wartime dislocation, air raids, and the absence of Parliamentary and local elections, than if it had been a traditional parliamentary party focusing exclusively on constituency and ward boundaries. It also meant that the CP faced up to the politics of workplace organisation. It saw shop stewards’ organisation as a means of extending the workers’ “frontier of control” within the factory. In April 1945 the EATSSNC’s pamphlet Shop stewards and the Future developed this analysis:

“The shop stewards, the NCO’s of the factory front, have proved their worth ... An enormous extension of the principle of workers’ participation in organising production will be essential.”

The CP saw shop stewards’ organisation as a reformist mechanism for tipping the balance of forces towards the working-class within the workplace. The “shop stewards’ movement” it habitually referred to was thus either its ‘front’, the EATSSNC, or the aggregate of separate shop stewards’ committees. The CP was clearly not building a rank and file movement of organised self-activity to generalise demands beyond individual workplaces or act independently of the officials.

The left reformism in industry mirrored the emergence in 1944–1945 of what finally became, in 1951, the CP programme, The British Road to Socialism. Even at the peak of the 1930s Popular Front turn, the CP had not been a normal “parliamentary” party. On August 5, 1939, Pollitt had replied to the Picture Post’s question – “How does the CPGB contemplate getting into power?”:

“The existing social order is based on the domination of the ruling capitalist class. This power has to be broken before it is possible for the working class to take over the means of production. This can only be accomplished by the power of the organised working class once it has reached consciousness of its class aim. To realise this conquest of power and the building of socialism, it is the task of the Communist Party to build the unity and organisation of the working class ...” (my emphasis – S.J.)

But following the war experience of using the existing state apparatus to achieve “Communist” aims (the prosecution of the anti-fascist war, an alliance between Britain and Russia), all talk of “breaking” ruling-class power was abandoned. The May 1944 EC discussion document “Britain for the People” described “social and economic measures ... making inroads into monopoly and vested interests”. And Pollitt’s pamphlet How to win the peace appeared in September 1944. He maintained that:

“Every essential for progress does now exist. We have seen during the war the establishment of striking new alliances and unity of purpose between nation and nation, class and class, even when the most fundamental differences in social systems, politics, religion and class outlook existed.”

Describing the “Britain for the People” he now believed “a majority of the nation intend to win”, he asked:

“How can it be done? We reply, by a Government based on a Labour and progressive majority in Parliament, commanding the support of all, whatever class or section they represent, who desire that the lessons of the war shall be learnt and applied in the peace.”

Answering the charge that this road leads to “State Capitalism”, Pollitt wrote – “Well, what is wrong about that?”

The CP’s overenthusiastic support for “peaceful coexistence” led it temporarily in early 1945 to broaden its definition of “progressive majority” to include “progressive Tories” like Churchill and Eden, and to argue for the continuation of the “national coalition” after the May 1945 General Election. This line went totally against the leftward motion of the class and after two months it was dropped. Pollitt explained to the 1945 CP Congress that “It exaggerated the degree of the differentiation in the Tory Party and the support for the Liberal Party in the country.”

What was not abandoned, however, was the CP’s new parliamentary road position, its reformist view of the state and its denial of the centrality of working class self-activity and the rank and file united front. Charlie Wellard, still a CP member and the moving spirit behind the South London Shop Stewards’ Movement of the 1930s, wrote to Comment in May 1979 about his experiences in 1945 when he returned to South-East London to try and rebuild it:

“To this end a meeting of our former associates and some new contacts was called for and achieved. The London District Committee sent as their representative Comrade Hardy ... It was my function to outline the objects of the meeting and to give the political reasons for the attempt to revive the rank-and-file movement in the local factories. To my amazement and consternation Comrade Hardy informed us that the DC could not support us, and, in fact, were against it. I asked him did that mean that no effort should be made to meet together to discuss our joint problems. ‘Yes’ he said, in fact there should not be any attempt to meet together. He was then asked by me, ‘Does this extend to writing letters to each other?’, ‘Yes’ said Comrade Hardy.”

The perspective of a rank and file movement independent of the trade union bureaucracy was outlawed. The CP’s base inside the ranks of union officials was already too numerous and too influential to be worth risking. At the Labour Party Conference in May 1945 the CP’s “Progressive Unity” proposal for CP and Labour candidates not to oppose each other at the polls received the top vote ever for CP-Labour unity: 1,219,000 to 1,314,000. Among the unions which backed the CP line were the miners, the AEU, the ETU, the FBU, painters, vehicle builders and ASLEF. The CP’s industrial base had come a long way since the early 1920s and was now on a different road from which there would be no turning back.


One justification for the CP’s break between 1935 and 1945 with early Communist traditions has been that in the period since the 1920s, the distinction between the trade union officials (bureaucracy) and the ordinary membership (rank and file) does not apply (if it ever did).

What then, do we mean by “rank and file organisations”? The three main forms of rank and file organisations are: (1) Shop stewards’ committees, reflecting a given work group and bargaining power; (2) Combine committees, which represent various groups of workers within a company or industry less rather than more effectively; and (3) Rank and file movements, which have no specific bargaining base.

A shop stewards’ committee within one plant reflects the patterning of capitalism. It is an ‘organic’ development of trade union workplace organisation. A characteristic of such organic organisations is that most workers see them as legitimate: advanced and backward sections, right-wingers and left-wingers, all work within and recognise the right of this organisation to give leadership.

The 1920s and early 1930s in Britain were bleak for organic workshop organisation. Individual trade union membership was difficult enough to maintain, let alone shop stewards’ committees. Yet there remained a substantial opposition to the integrative policies of the trade union bureaucracy. The early CI united front strategy aimed to unite the minority of fighters from different work groups within an industry or union.

The rank and file movements which developed before 1928 and after 1932 were not an automatic or ‘natural’ response by trade unionists to the objective situation: they were consciously created. They didn’t reflect a clear capitalist pattern: they were not limited by the horizon of the workplace walls. And they were also not ‘legitimate’ in the eyes of all workers. They were the creations of committed anti-capitalists, most of whom during the 1920s and 1930s were members of the CP.

By the mid-1930s workshop trade unionism was recovering in particular sections of the economy, and where it was strongest a hybrid rank and file form developed. This was the organisation of shop stewards and/or militants from within a particular company (e.g. the London General Omnibus Company) or a narrowly-defined industry (e.g. aircraft manufacture). ‘Combine’ organisations were not organic – they didn’t arise spontaneously nor were they ‘legitimate’ for all workers. They were created by anti-capitalist individuals who understood that to strengthen the bargaining base of their own work group demanded going beyond their own depot or factory. In its ‘Popular Front’ phase, the CP supported them while they were complementary to work within the union machine, but discouraged them from initiating independent action.

All three forms of rank and file organisation, however, have one common defining characteristic: their potential to create “a situation of ‘dual power’ between trade union officialdom and independently organised militant sections of the rank and file” (Hinton, First Shop Stewards Movement). More or less clearly, at times even totally hidden from view. They express sectional or class goals which the integrated trade union bureaucracy tries to suppress. Rank and file organisations thus express the self-activity of the working class and can extend trade union consciousness beyond the ‘natural’ pattern of the workplace walls independently of the integrative tendencies of the national trade union structure. This means that the rank and file – bureaucracy distinction is crucial. It is the dividing line between working class self-activity and adherents of ‘socialism from above’. We can therefore see it was the CP’s adaptation first to class collaborationist forces and then to a reformist road to socialism that led it to abandon its rank and file united front strategy. The explanation as to why it should have adapted in this way is also related: after 1929 the CPGB was a thoroughly Stalinised party which identified the absence of working class self-activity in Russia with “socialism “.

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Last updated: 19.8.2013