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Joseph Redman

British Communist History

(July 1957)

From Labour Review, Vol.2 No.4, July-August 1957, pp.106-110.
Joseph Redman was a pseudonym of Brian Pearce.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In July 1956 the Executive Committee of the Communist Party decided ‘to proceed with the preparations for the publication of a history of the party’. In September the composition of the Editing Commission for this work was announced – with Harry Pollitt as chairman and R. Page Arnot as executive officer. Since then no news has been given out as to the progress or prospects of the party history. It is hardly surprising that a number of comrades have been doing some digging on their own account without waiting – ‘it may be for years, and it may be for ever’ – for something to emerge from the Commission. One such free-lance effort has already been published – my short study of The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925-29, which came out in April as Reasoner Pamphlet No.1. Since I wrote it I have read, discussed and thought further on the period and the problems involved, and am glad to have this opportunity of presenting, in Labour Review, some self-critical considerations which I hope may prove helpful to comrades studying the history of the party, and may perhaps stimulate original work by others.

The principal shortcomings of the pamphlet seem to me to be twofold. First, the international setting of the developments in Britain in 1927-29 is not shown sufficiently – the changes of a similar kind that were made in other Communist Parties in this period, as part of a world-wide ‘turn’, with more or less equally disastrous consequences in the various countries concerned. In this connection, comparison with China is especially striking and instructive. Second, the years 1925-27 are dealt with somewhat sketchily, and in particular, those weaknesses of a ‘Right-opportunist’ nature in communist policy which, by leading to setbacks and defeats, provided the basis for the ‘Left-sectarian turn’ that began at the end of 1927. Here, too, there is a significant parallel with what happened in China.

Comintern policy in China, following the betrayal of the national revolution first by Chiang Kai-shek and then by the Wuhan Government, took a violent swing to the Left, signalized by the Canton insurrection of December 1927. While the revolutionary tide had been sweeping forward, the slogan of soviets had been banned, the workers held back from anti-capitalist actions and the peasants from seizing the land. Now, with some of the best cadres of the communist movement annihilated, the masses stunned and reaction in the saddle, an adventurist, putschist policy was suddenly adopted, resulting in further heavy losses, to no purpose. The Canton affair coincided with the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and a spokesman of the Stalinist majority there hailed the news as evidence that an era of direct struggle for working-class power was opening in China. A few months later, experience having shown the tragic folly of such a claim, the Sixth Congress of the Comintern characterized Canton as ‘an heroic rearguard action’ ... The ‘New Line’ in its Chinese edition led to the destruction of virtually all communist positions in the cities and towns of China for a long time to come, dooming the Chinese revolution to take the long way round through a series of peasant wars unassisted by urban struggles. (Another consequence was the provision of ample scope in China for several years for the expansion and strengthening of Japanese imperialism. Not for the first time, or the last, a Stalinist policy ‘justified’ by the needs of the defence of the Soviet Union produced results full of danger to the Soviet Union.)

Anyone can be wise after the event, but it should be more widely realized that the ‘Left turn’ of 1927-29 was warned against at the time by L.D. Trotsky, both in relation to China and in relation to Europe, including Britain. The conventional image of Trotsky presented by Stalinist propaganda since 1935 shows a man whose political wisdom consisted in always trying to push Communist policy Leftward, regardless of circumstances: It is fascinating to observe the ingenuity with which J.R. Campbell conceals from his readers in his widely-read Soviet Policy and its Critics (1939) and other ‘anti-Trotskyist’ writings the fact that Trotsky denounced the ‘social-fascist’ nonsense of 1928-34 from start to finish and never stopped urging that a united front of all workers’ parties against fascism should be the aim of the communists in Germany. At the time, every effort was made by the Stalinist leadership of the British Communist Party to prevent knowledge of Trotsky’s critique of Comintern policy reaching the members at large. Comrades in South-West London who in 1932 printed (in The Communist, a sort of predecessor to The Reasoner) Trotsky’s views on the situation in Germany, and urged that, in Britain, the party should at least stop calling on the workers to spoil their ballot-papers rather than vote Labour, were slandered and expelled….

In his letter to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern (1928), Trotsky offered the opinion that ‘nothing is more fruitless than showing one’s fist after the battle’ and argued that, contrary to the official ‘Third Period’ thesis, ‘an inter-revolutionary period of indefinite duration’ was opening to which communist activities must perforce be adjusted in a realistic manner. Now this situation had not come about by itself, but as a result of a series of blows suffered by the working-class movement internationally – above all, the betrayal of the General Strike in Britain and that of the revolution in China. These defeats, in turn, were not unconnected with the flaws in communist policy in the 1925-27 period; and it is to this theme, in its application to Britain, that I would now direct attention.

The slow growth of the Communist Party in Britain in the early twenties made impatient the Zinoviev-Stalin leadership of the Comintern, producing in them a sceptical attitude to the party and a tendency to seek alternative instruments for revolutionary policy in this country. Already in 1924 at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, Zinoviev hinted at what was to come in the following year:

In Britain we are now going through the beginning of a new chapter in the Labour movement. We do not know exactly whence the communist mass party of Britain will come, whether only through the Stewart-MacManus door [Bob Stewart and Arthur MacManus were prominent British communists. – J.R.] or through some other door. And it is entirely possible that the communist mass party may appear through still another door – and we cannot lose sight of that fact.

Knowing his Zinoviev and recognizing the instinctive preference of the Soviet bureaucracy for influencing world affairs through pacts with other bureaucrats rather than through developing mass movements, already in the same year Trotsky warned, in his Lessons of October:

It is true that the British trade unions may become a mighty lever of the proletarian revolution; they may, for instance, even replace workers’ soviets under certain conditions and for a certain time. They can, however, fill such a role not apart from a Communist Party and certainly not against the party, but only on the condition that communist influence becomes the decisive influence in the trade unions.

Looking back on the period 1925-27 in his essay On the Draft Programme of the Comintern written in 1928. Trotsky observed that: ‘The point of departure of the Anglo-Russian Committee ... was the impatient urge to leap over the young and too slowly developing Communist Party.’ This Anglo-Russian Committee was a joint committee of the British and Soviet TUC General Councils formed in 1925 to promote world trade union unity in general and closer relations between British and Soviet trade unions in particular, for the common cause of Labour. On it there served, from the British side, a group of trade union leaders, Purcell, Hicks and Swales, who rapidly acquired a reputation as Left-wingers almost entirely on the basis of their attitude to the USSR. In this same period the British communists were steadily and painfully building up the Minority Movement in the trade unions, that broad alliance of militants which at the height of its development embraced a quarter of the total membership of the trade unions. The Minority Movement was essentially a mass movement; it worked for and achieved the election to office of militant trade unionists, notably A.J. Cook, who became the miners’ secretary with Minority Movement support, but it never degenerated into a mere election-winning caucus. Together with the National Left-Wing Movement which arose among Labour Party members after the Liverpool decisions, as described in my pamphlet, it represented a tremendous potential force for leftward progress in the British working-class movement. Now, Purcell and the others held aloof from the Minority Movement: where Cook was a friend of the Soviet Union and a fighter for militant policies in Britain, Purcell was a ‘Left’ strictly in the international sphere, and his friendly relations with Russian communists did not modify his coolness towards the homebred variety. But the importance attributed to the Anglo-Russian Committee by the Russians and the confidence they showed in Purcell and his colleagues inevitably had its effect on the view taken of these men by the British communists and militant workers generally.

It may be doubted whether the leaders of the CPSU really believed that the implications of Purcell’s willingness to sit on a committee with Soviet trade unionists were as revolutionary as their propaganda around the Anglo-Russian Committee seemed to suggest. Already by this time they saw the central task of the workers outside the USSR as that of ensuring good relations between their respective countries and the USSR, and they probably thought of their alliance with a group of established, influential British trade union leaders as first and foremost a factor for good Anglo-Soviet relations, of much more practical value than anything the rank-and-file militants could offer. Experience was to disabuse them sharply of this illusion; but in its heyday Zinoviev spoke with unbounded enthusiasm of the Committee as ‘one of the surest guarantees, against intervention’, as well as ‘a guarantee that in the course of time we shall render European reformism harmless’. Trotsky’s view of the line of development was a different one. In his book Where Is Britain Going? (1925) [1] he wrote:

The British bourgeoisie take unerring account of the fact that the chief danger threatens them from the trade unions and that only under the pressure of these mass organisations will the Labour Party, after radically renewing its leadership, be transformed into a revolutionary force.

The trade unions could be won through the Minority Movement, under communist leadership, and the Communist Party would ‘take that place in relation to the Labour Party which at present is occupied by the Independent Labour Party’ – then the principal political organization within the Labour Party.

Under the pressure of the rising tide of militancy led by the Minority Movement, the TUC General Council defied the Baldwin Government and the mine-owners on ‘Red Friday’. July 31, 1925, forcing a postponement of the showdown over miners’ wages and hours till May of the following year. Instead, however, of mobilizing all the workers’ forces to ensure victory when the showdown came, the Labour leaders at once began taking, steps to break up the movement that had obliged them unwillingly to make a stand. The Liverpool conference ban on communists in the Labour Party followed directly from Red Friday. A. J. Cook campaigned for preparation against the fateful day, but none of the alleged ‘Lefts’ of Anglo-Russian Committee fame would join him. In his History of the British Communist Party (1937), Tom Bell, one of the party’s leaders of the time, wrote:

The Labour leaders made no effort to prepare for action. They lulled the trade unions into a false sense of security by encouraging reliance on the findings of the Coal Commission. At the same time in many places it was tacitly assumed that secret preparations were being made by the General Council. The fact that there was a Left wing on the Council (comprising Purcell. Swales, Hicks, Tillett and Bromley) lent colour to this idea.

One may add that the source of this notion, accepted by the British communists as well as by others, that there was a Left wing on the General Council, was the association of the individuals named with the Anglo-Russian Committee, and the illusions which were ‘being built up around this Committee. R. Page Arnot, in his study of The General Strike (1926) writes:

Knowledge of the existence of this Left wing was at once a stimulant and a narcotic for the masses. It gave them a rallying ground, lent confidence to their leftward mood; but, then, it put vigilance to sleep, and led to over-trustfulness, so that when the breakdown of May 12 came, workers in the localities were looking at one another in dismay, naming the individual leaders of the Left and complaining that it was these men who were responsible in chief.

It is important to realize that from the end of 1925 onwards the membership and prestige of the British Communist Party was rising rapidly. Given the mood of the workers, the arrest and imprisonment of some of the party’s leaders produced exactly the opposite effect to what had been intended by the Government. A greater opportunity than ever before since the days of 1920 was coming to the British communists. One observer wrote (Bulletin communiste, January 1, 1926) that where the party had had ten sympathizers before the arrests, now there were a hundred. But the attitude to the ‘Left’ TUC leaders inculcated on the basis of their membership of the Anglo-Russian Committee prevented the party and the Minority Movement from striving for the leadership of the workers and even weakened essential measures of preparation for the coming struggle. At the Comintern Executive’s plenary meeting in February 1926 Aitken Ferguson defined the role of the Minority Movement as being ‘to bring pressure to bear upon the reactionaries and to stiffen up the hesitating and wobbly elements’, and George Hardy admitted that the formation of factory groups of the Minority Movement was still ‘something which we have to tackle’.

In an article published in the Communist International shortly after the General Strike, Problems of the British Labour Movement, Trotsky quoted passages from his correspondence of January-March 1926, which are of great interest in enabling the historian to see with the eyes of a contemporary ‘what went wrong’ in those vital months preceding May Day, 1926. He pointed to the danger that ‘the forming of the proletarian vanguard might lag behind the development of the revolutionary situation. Faced with the necessity for decisive action, the proletariat might be unable to find the necessary political leadership. There was a risk of taking the ‘Lefts’ in the General Council too readily at their own valuation. ‘The masses are immeasurably more Left than the Left-wingers themselves ... In the British Labour Movement, international questions have always been the line of least resistance for the leaders’: They used the prestige gained in the international sphere to impose a reactionary policy in domestic, class-struggle spheres. If the British communists were not to miss the boat as the Germans had done in 1923, they must ‘aid the Left wing to find the proper orientation for action (the real Left wing and not Lansbury or Purcell)’. Apart from private correspondence, Trotsky managed to bring into an article in Inprecorr for March 11, reviewing events in Britain during the year since the publication of his book, a call for ‘systematic unmasking’ of the ‘Left’ leaders. King Street remained, however, under the guidance of the dominant faction in Moscow, blind to this aspect of the situation. George Hardy, who was acting secretary of the Minority Movement during the General Strike period, records in his memoirs (Those Stormy Years), that, when the strike was called, ‘at first many of us gave the Left wing on the [General] Council the credit for this victory, which seemed to bring into being that solidarity which we had worked so hard to create’. (After describing the betrayal of the strike, Hardy remarks: ‘Although we knew of what treachery the Right-wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called Left in the union leadership’; and draws the conclusion that ‘the main point for preparing for action must always be to develop a class-conscious leadership among the rank and file’.)

In the midst of the General Strike itself, Trotsky wrote (May 6) in his preface to the second German edition of his Where Is Britain Going? that the success of the struggle depended on the extent to which the workers realized the need to change their leaders and succeeded in doing this.

An English proverb says that one must not change horses while crossing a stream. This practical wisdom is true, however, only within certain limits. It has never yet been possible to cross a revolutionary stream on the horse of reformism, and a class which enters battle under opportunist leaders is compelled to change them under the enemy’s fire. [2]

The common betrayal of the strike by ‘Rights’ and ‘Lefts’ alike on the General Council came as a surprise to the British communists, and, in the words of J.T. Murphy (The Political Meaning of the Great Strike), ‘the shock ... was too great to make any quick throw-up of a new leadership possible’. The workers turned towards the party in greater numbers than ever in the months immediately following the betrayal, and by October 1926 the membership was double what it had been in April. Thereafter, however, especially with the forced surrender of the miners, a drift out of and away from the party began which was to continue steadily for many years. And the party has never since recovered the standing it enjoyed among the workers in 1925-26, even though paper membership from about 1936 onward has markedly exceeded the figure of that period. As Trotsky had warned it could, 1926 proved as tragic a year of ‘might have been’ for Britain as 1923 for Germany. A prominent member of the Communist Party in the General Strike period, in a so far unpublished MS., sums up the lesson like this:

It is my considered opinion, in the light of after-happenings, that if the workers of Britain had been equipped with a leadership at all equivalent to their splendid courage, resolution and sense of solidarity. May Day, 1926, would have been the opening day of a proletarian revolution. Unhappily, history shows us by many examples that, if such a chance is missed, it takes long and many years before it can be induced to return.

The Anglo-Russian Committee had been formed to ensure mutual aid and support between the trade unionists of the two countries. But after the workers of the USSR, amid scenes of tremendous enthusiasm, had levied themselves to the extent of £1,250,000 to help the British strikers, this money was flatly rejected by the General Council. Hicks, one of the actual members of the Anglo-Russian Committee, was widely reported as denouncing ‘this damned Russian gold’. It was a slap in the face which evoked moods of confusion and disappointment among the Soviet workers, feeding the cynicism about the world revolution which had already been implanted by the failure in Germany in 1923 and which was the main moral foundation for Stalinism. They had been led to believe that Purcell, Hicks, etc., were the men who were going to bring about the social revolution in Britain – and here these men were, rejecting the solidarity of the Soviet working class. A few days later these same men betrayed the strike. And, from the Soviet point of view, there was worse to come ... A demonstrative break with the General Council might have helped to rally the British workers by stripping the last shred of political respectability from the pseudo-Lefts. That, however, would have meant that Trotsky and the Opposition, who were calling for this very action, were right. So it was not done, and the Soviet trade union leaders added to the confusion among the British workers by continuing to hob-nob with the strikebreakers for a year after their curt rejection of Soviet aid.

The Anglo-Russian Committee was kept alive on the initiative of the Soviet partner alone, the attitude of the British leaders growing colder and colder. The spectacle of the Soviet trade union leaders running after the British had its effect in blunting the edge of the militants’ criticism of the latter. In August a meeting of the Committee broke up without any agreement being reached on a Russian proposal for a joint international campaign for aid to the miners. Yet the Committee remained in being; and this undoubtedly influenced the Minority Movement’s spokesmen in their adoption of a mildness of tone in their criticism of the General Council, at the Trades Union Congress not long after, for its responsibility for the failure of the General Strike, a mildness which bewildered great numbers who had been hoping for a bold lead on that occasion. A few months later, the General Council issued an ultimatum to trades councils, forbidding them to affiliate to the Minority Movement. Some of the largest trades councils in the country, such as Glasgow, Sheffield and Manchester, were opposed to this ultimatum, and a defiance could have been organized which might have stirred the trade unions to the depths, revived the spirit, now fast draining away, of the Nine Days, and brought a salutary change of leadership. But no, King Street advised the trades councils to submit without a fight. As J.T. Murphy, one of the party leaders of that time, puts it in his Preparing for Power (1934): ‘The workers could not understand this new alliance of the communists and the General Council, and their resistance was killed.’

Now came the final phase in the story of the Anglo-Russian Committee, and the real value of this fetish to which so much had been sacrificed was at last put to the test. In April 1927 the Committee met in Berlin. The Opposition in the CPSU demanded that the Russian representatives call for immediate action against British intervention in China. But the question was not even raised; instead, the Russians accepted a new paragraph in the Committee’s constitution, demanded by the British side, forbidding any criticism of their conduct by the Russians. Even this they were now ready to swallow, though the Comintern ‘theses’ on the General Strike had made a point of mentioning that ‘the trade unions of the USSR entered the Anglo-Russian Committee without in any way tying their hands in the matter of criticism’. This was the price they were prepared to pay for the support of the General Council against those Tories who were working for a break with the USSR. On May 12 came the Arcos raid, and shortly afterward the breaking-off of diplomatic relations. The Soviet trade unions called for an emergency meeting of the Anglo-Russian Committee to plan action to force a reversal of this move – and were refused. The house of cards had collapsed. The Anglo-Russian Committee was dead. What was supposed to function as ‘the organizing centre for the international forces of the proletariat in the struggle against all attempts of the international bourgeoisie to start up a new war’ had gone absent just when it was most needed.

In an article dated May 16, 1927, Trotsky recalled that ‘the Opposition foretold in its writings that the maintenance of the Anglo-Russian Committee would steadily strengthen the position of the General Council. and that the latter would inevitably be converted from defendant into prosecutor’. ‘Our real friends, the revolutionary workers, can only be deceived and weakened by the policy of illusions and hypocrisy.’ If the Soviet trade unions had broken with the General Council in good time, ‘such a policy would have forced the Left capitulators of the General Council to fight for the remnants of their reputation ... in a word, to show the workers that they, the Left, are not half as bad as the Moscow people present them’. At the Central Committee of the CPSU on August 1, Trotsky showed how the Stalinist leadership had preferred to rely in its British policy upon the Anglo-Russian Committee rather than upon the Minority -Movement: ‘You rejected a small but sturdier prop for a bigger and utterly rotten one’. Comparing what had happened in Britain and what had happened in China, he went on: ‘Your present policy is a policy of rotten props on an international scale … Each of these props broke at the moment when it was most sorely needed. Thereupon, first you said ... “This is utterly incomprehensible!” in order to add on the very next day: “We always foresaw this”.’ (In his reply Stalin affirmed that ‘the importance of the British Communist Party is growing from day to day’ – something which had been true twelve months previously but had now for some time sadly ceased to be so.) What We Gave and What We Got: The Balance Sheet of the Anglo-Russian Committee was the title of Trotsky’s article of September 23 reviewing the story of the whole sorry episode after the TUC had formally wound up the Committee, and drawing, the political lessons from it. The General Council had utilized the moral support of the Soviet trade unions to help it over the politically difficult period following the General Strike; then, when securely back in the saddle again, it had kicked the Russians away with the minimum of protest among the bewildered and disappointed rank and file. This was the inevitable penalty for trying to skip over the necessary stages in building up the British Communist Party and its influence, in favour of would-be clever manoeuvres of a diplomatic character with sections of the trade union bureaucracy. What was at best a temporary and auxiliary device had been made the pivot of international communist policy in relation to Britain, so fostering dangerous illusions and sowing confusion among the genuine Left elements in Britain, communists and others. Trotsky called for publication of all the documents of the controversy around the Anglo-Russian Committee, so that comrades might judge for themselves and decide what political conclusions to draw.

In place of this, what happened was the expulsion of the Opposition from the CPSU in December 1927, and along with it a somersault to the Left in international communist policy. Having burnt its fingers in China with Chiang and in Britain with Purcell (also, incidentally, in Poland with Pilsudski) the Stalinist leadership rushed into the ultra-Leftist excesses of which my pamphlet gives some account so far as Britain is concerned. Just when, as a result of the ‘Right’ mistakes of the period 1926-27, the Communist Party had lost its former ascendancy and social-democratic ideas were re-establishing themselves among the workers, so that a policy of strengthening links with the masses (such as the National Left-Wing Movement) was more than ever necessary, the order went out to the communists to retreat into isolation and separate themselves from the broad movement. The genuine Left, Cook, was to be reviled as unrestrainedly as the pseudo-Left Purcell had been praised. Trotsky, with his characteristic bitter humour, spoke of people who could not distinguish the face of a revolution from its backside, and recalled ‘the very well-known hero of a Russian folk-tale who sings wedding-songs at funerals and funeral-hymns at weddings. He gets a sound thrashing in both places’. Unfortunately it was the Communist Parties of the world and the working class generally that paid the price for the unprincipled zigzags – ‘zigging’, as somebody said, ‘when they should have zagged, and zagging when they should have zigged’ – carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Study of the history of the international communist movement may help us to avoid the repetition of old mistakes, at least, in new situations.



1. This remarkable book should be reprinted. When the English version of it appeared. a reviewer in the Labour Monthly wrote: ‘A challenge may safely be issued to the critics to name a single book by a single English author or politician, bourgeois or Labour leader, which is as close to the essentials of the English situation as Trotsky’s book. It cannot be done: The reviewer was R. Palme Dutt.

2. One may compare with this J.H. Thomas’s statement in the House of Commons on May 13: ‘What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this – if by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened. I thank God it never did.’

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