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Joseph Redman

The Early Years of the CPGB

From Labour Review, Vol. 3 No. 1, January–February 1958, pp. 11–22.
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).

N.B. The following abbreviations have been used throughout:

  • CI for Communist International
  • CR for Communist Review
  • LM for Labour Monthly

Julian Symons has done a service to the British working-class movement by writing The General Strike. [1] At this time when great clashes between Capital and Labour are in prospect it is particularly valuable to have a fresh and thorough study of the major industrial conflict of our age, for examination of the history of the General Strike can help to clarify understanding of the dangers and possibilities that confront us now.

Besides the printed materials [2], Mr Symons has used the Transport House records and a mass of private letters and diaries which were made available to him by participants in the struggle, both strikers and strike-breakers. The two strongest impressions left by the book are, first, that contrary to what the author calls ‘a much cherished myth’ of the British bourgeoisie the strike was not weakening but actually growing stronger at the moment when it was called off (figures are given that show how ‘the railway services were chaotic, and functioned with only a small fraction of their normal efficiency’); and, second, the sharp contrast between the behaviour of the leadership and that of the rank and file. Not only had the General Council totally failed to prepare for the conflict or even to draw up a strategic plan – some of its members, and especially J.H. Thomas, worked deliberately, from the start, to betray their followers. The mass of the strikers meanwhile displayed both enthusiasm (groups not called out pressing the leadership to call them out) and that amazing power of self-organization that is so characteristic of the British working class in an emergency. Mr Symons shows the anxious concern of the General Council to prevent the rank and file getting out of hand:

The problem of controlling provincial activities much engaged the General Council. It was feared that in some provincial towns and cities extreme Left-wing elements might take control and conduct the strike as a purely political affair. Hence, the Strike Organization Committee tried from the first to maintain a control over provincial activities which was, in the circumstances, simply unworkable, and which contrasts markedly with the Government’s plan to give the greatest possible degree of autonomy to Civil Commissioners. [3]

The chairman of the Strike Organization Committee was that A.A. Purcell who had been given such a build-up as a ‘Left’ by the communists in the preceding twelve months, on the strength of his membership of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. [4] Another of these alleged Lefts, Swales, was one of the committee of three who negotiated with Baldwin on the eve of the strike, and Mr Symons notes that he, ‘who might have been expected to protest’ against the Government’s proposals, ‘was the least vocal of the three’. Summing up on the ‘Lefts’, the author writes:

The Left-wing trade union leaders played what seems in retrospect a strikingly timid part. They were outnumbered, but they occupied important positions. One of them, Purcell, was chairman of the Strike Organization Committee: George Hicks, John Bromley, Ben Tillett and A.B. Swales were leading figures on various committees. After the strike was over some of them spoke brave words to the effect that it had been a class struggle, yet during the nine days there is no suggestion that opinion in the General Council was seriously divided at any time. [5]

It is implicit in the story of the General Strike as set forth in this book that the communists, though they worked devotedly and were the object of special persecution by the police, played no special role in the strike and certainly did nothing to justify the fears of the General Council that they might try to take over the leadership. Reactions to my article British Communist History in the July-August number of Labour Review have shown that this is an unfamiliar conception to many communists and also to ex-communists of recent vintage. When they appreciate that it is nevertheless true, the usual comment is either: ‘Well, anyway, it was Thomas and Co. who betrayed the strike, not the communists’, or: ‘What was to be expected? After all, the party’s leaders were in jail in the vital period’.

To the first of these comments I would reply that one of the jobs that communists are sent into the world to do is to save the workers from being betrayed by the Thomases; and to the second, that it does an injustice both to communists generally and to the British communists of 1925–26 in particular. Lenin was on the run and Trotsky in prison when Kornilov launched his attack on Petrograd, but that did not prevent the Bolsheviks from turning the tables upon him, in spite of everything, Kerensky included. So far as Britain in 1926 was concerned, George Hardy writes in his useful memoirs Those Stormy Years that, though the arrests were ‘a severe blow’, nevertheless ‘plans for an alternative leading group had been made. Bob Stewart stepped into the breach as acting general secretary and several members, including myself, were brought on to the Political Bureau’.

That the Communist Party failed to play the role in the General Strike which most people, friends and foes alike, had expected it would play, was a commonplace in the period immediately ensuing. For example, Harold Laski wrote in his book Communism (1927): ‘It was noteworthy that in the British General Strike of 1926 the communists played practically no part at all’, and Hamilton Fyfe, in his diary of the conflict, Behind the Scenes of the Great Strike (1926) noted: ‘The communists have kept very quiet ... On the Continent, in America even, it is the extremists who come to the top in crises. Here they have sunk out of sight’. The suggestion that there might have been some foundation for the Government’s alleged fear of revolution was firmly rebutted by T.H. Wintringham, in the CR for June 1926: ‘The Communist Party knew, as the TUC leaders knew, that this was not the time for anything but solid resistance to a deliberate attack’. George Hardy acknowledges that ‘the Councils of Action, with a few exceptions, functioned only in a limited way’. E.H. Brown, reporting to the Organization Conference of the CPGB in October 1926, said: ‘It must be admitted that our factory groups were weak and did not function properly during the General Strike. In some districts the groups stopped functioning altogether’ (quoted by Piatnitsky, in CI, June 15, 1927). ‘A British Communist’ wrote, approvingly, in the Paris monthly La Révolution prolétarienne for July 1926 that ‘the acting general secretary called upon the members of the party to behave as loyal trade unionists and carry out the instructions of the General Council – which they did’. P. Braun, in the LM of January 1927, declared that it was ‘quite obvious that during the days of the General Strike, when millions of workers came out to fight for the cause of Labour against the Government, the Communist Party believed that the General Council would not dare to betray such a magnificent fight. It is a fact that, even after Baldwin made it perfectly clear in the House of Commons that the representatives of the TUC were prepared to discuss the formula drafted by Birkenhead, which definitely mentioned wage reductions, the Workers’ Bulletin (the official organ of the Communist Party during the period of the General Strike) of May 7 expressed the hope that the leaders of the General Council would frankly admit that they had made a mistake, and that they would stand solidly by the miners’ slogans’. [6]

Trotsky summed up the chief lesson of the General Strike in the sentence: ‘The entire present “superstructure” of the British working class, in all its shades and groups without exception, is an apparatus for putting a brake on the revolution’ [7] To this judgment the executive committee of the Comintern sharply retorted in its resolution of June 8: ‘The attempts to include the Communist Party of Great Britain in the arsenal of “brakes on the revolution” do not bear criticism’. It is not my purpose in this article, however, to go further into the history of the debate which took place in the international communist movement on the conclusions for the subsequent period to be drawn from the defeat of the General Strike in Britain, though I am well aware that I only touched the fringe of the subject in the July-August 1957 Labour Review. What I wish to do here is to reinforce my account in British Communist History of how the CPGB arrived at the lamentable political position indicated above, showing that the beginning of the decline and fall of this party as revolutionary Marxist party is to be dated from 1925; and briefly to consider, in the light of the history of the first five years of the party, how far this downfall was ‘inevitable’ and to what factors it was due.

The struggle against sectarianism

Though formed in August 1920 (with adhesion of some further groups in January 1921), the British Communist Party remained for its first year or two of existence little more than an amalgamated and enlarged version of the propagandist sects which had preceded it. It took the moral pressure of Lenin himself to bring about the fusion of the various sects into a single party in the first place (‘Left-Wing’ Communism and Letter to Sylvia Pankhurst), and from the beginning Lenin, Trotsky and the whole Comintern leadership of 1920–23 had to struggle against the rooted sectarianism of the British Marxists. At the convention where the Communist Party was established strong opposition was expressed to Moscow’s advice that the party apply for affiliation to the Labour Party: the Russian comrades did not know what they were talking about, said some, and the vote, taken after a debate in which most of the speakers opposed affiliation, was the narrow one of 100-85 in favour. The first application for affiliation was couched in terms that invited rejection, and when this duly came, the party leadership’s relief was unconcealed. The Communist of September 16, 1920, wrote: ‘So be it. It is their funeral, not ours.’ A message from the Comintern compelled the British communists to reconsider this estimate of what had happened, and a week later the same paper explained that ‘it is the duty of the communists to work where the masses are. That may mean going into reactionary organizations, but that is better and easier than creating brand new organizations in the hope that the masses will leave the old ones and come to the new’.

The basic attitude of the CPGB, derived from pre-war Social Democratic Federation traditions, remained unchanged, however, and this was shown in the activities which it launched towards the end of 1920 and in early 1921. The unemployed workers’ committee which were set up on communist initiative did a tremendous job in bringing pressure to bear on local authorities, stopping blacklegging and agitating against overtime, but the achievements of the unemployed movement were far less than could have been won with a less sectarian approach. There was little sustained effort to establish links with the trades councils and achieve recognition by the organized Labour movement. Satisfaction with unemployed ‘separatism’ was combined with a tendency to neglect steady work and concentrate on stunt demonstrations. [8] Then there was the East Woolwich by-election, when the party stumped the constituency calling on the workers to abstain because Tory and Labour were ‘two of a kind’ and The Communist of March 5, 1921, boasted that the Labour candidate’s defeat (by 683 votes in a poll of 27,000) was due to the communist campaign. This sort of thing prevented the party from winning the political influence among the workers that the valiant work of many of its members during the ‘Black Friday’ period might otherwise have secured, and provided the Right-wine leaders of the Labour Party with ready-made arguments against affiliation which they kept bringing up for years afterward. [9]

The persistent ‘Leftism’ of the west European Communist Parties in this period found its supreme expression in the so-called ‘March action’ (1921) in Germany. Had the Comintern leadership not given a sharp rebuff to attempts to justify this semi-putschist approach to politics and set the course unmistakably towards the united front and the winning of the masses, ‘perhaps within a year or two only splinters of Communist Parties would have been left’. [10] What Soviet Russia needed was successful revolutions in the West, Lenin and Trotsky pointed out to all concerned, and these would not be brought nearer by futile self-immolations of the revolutionary minority. The Comintern’s calls during and after the Third World Congress (1921) for serious and self-sacrificing efforts for working-class unity ‘came to the party in Britain practically as a shock’, admitted J.T. Murphy at the succeeding Congress in 1922.

Under the guidance of the Comintern, the CPGB began in the autumn of 1921 to set its house in order and take serious steps towards becoming the leader of the working class. A campaign was launched to popularize a scheme of reorganization of the TUC (‘A Parliament of Labour’) whereby, in addition to delegates of the national trade unions, it should contain representatives of the trades councils and also direct representation of the workers in the workshops. [11] In the demoralization following ‘Black Friday’ great numbers of workers had torn up their union cards and a successful employers’ offensive was under way. The communists set themselves to reverse this trend, with the slogans: ‘Back to the Unions!’ and ‘Stop the Retreat!’ When the engineering lock-out began, in April, 1922, the party for the first time, instead of merely denouncing the trade union bureaucrats, put forward a number of practical, specific proposals. In each locality the communists strove to revive and strengthen the neglected trades councils, working for every trade union branch and district committee to affiliate to its appropriate trades council and to transform these bodies into local centres for co-ordinating the workers’ struggles. (In October 1922, largely in consequence of these efforts, a national conference of trades councils was convened by the Birmingham Trades Council, with Alex Gossip in the chair). [12]

At the same time, a new and more honest approach was made to the Labour Party for affiliation (November 1921). The issue of violence was frankly faced.

Under normal circumstances the Labour Party acted within the law: the Communist Party declared itself prepared to do the same. However, should extraordinary circumstances arise, the Communist Party would be compelled to consider other means, in much the same way as the Labour Party had, in 1920, in forming Councils of Action ... [13]

Within the party leadership there was a deep resistance, however, to the entire united front conception. and the policy conference held in March 1922 agreed to embrace it only on the basis of T.A. Jackson’s notorious formulation about ‘taking the Labour leaders by the hand in order later to take them by the throat’. With all its weaknesses, however, this conference was a landmark in the party’s history in that it signalized the ‘abandonment of the tradition of claiming the allegiance of the workers as a right’. [14] The British communists were trying to put into effect, even though with misgivings and backslidings, the advice that Lenin was offering about the same time to the communists of Italy: not to ‘lose patience’ in exposing the social-democratic leaders ‘in a practical way’, ‘not to yield to the very easy and very dangerous decision to say “minus a” whenever Serrati says “a”.’ [15] In the same period. Trotsky wrote to the Congress of the French Communist Party:

To put forward the programme of the social revolution and oppose it ‘intransigently’ to the Dissidents and the syndico-reformists, while refusing to enter into any negotiations with them until they recognize our programme – this is a very simple policy which requires neither resourcefulness nor energy, neither flexibility nor initiative. It is not a communist policy. We communists seek for methods and avenues of bringing politically, practically and in action the still unconscious masses to the point where they begin posing the revolutionary issues themselves. [16]

In August 1922, as an earnest of the sincerity of its approach to Labour, the CPGB withdrew all the candidates it had been intending to stand against Labour candidates in the impending General Election. (This did not affect communist members of the Labour Party who had been adopted as Labour candidates, or communists standing where there was no Labour candidate in the field). The new communist attitude was frankly explained.

The Communist Party cannot oppose the Labour Party in so far as it is the party of the workers any more than it can oppose the trade unions as such; but it can as it does with the trade unions, fight the reactionary junta and seek to transform the Labour Party into an instrument of revolutionary progress.

The faith of the workers in the present leaders of the Labour Party must be tried and outlived by experience. This experience the communists will assist them to obtain by their action. [17]

Steadily increasing support began to accrue to the demand for Communist Party affiliation to the Labour Party, among the trades councils, notably in London and Glasgow, and in certain unions, especially the Miners’ Federation.

The turn to mass work

The party conference of March 1922, besides accepting the Comintern’s united front policy, had set up a commission to reorganize the party in accordance with the principles of party structure laid down by the Third Congress of the Comintern. The two questions were closely linked, for if the party was to strike roots in the masses it must cease to be organized primarily as a propaganda society. Broadly speaking, the same section of the membership that was indifferent, or worse, to the united front was perfectly satisfied with the old federal structure, the old large, debating-society branches and the old concentration on street-corner meetings, though it was already plain that a party so organized could never get into a position to lead a British workers’ revolution. The Reorganization Commission reported to a party Congress held in October 1922 which accepted its report, and in the ensuing six months this report was put into effect. A certain amount of financial looseness had flourished under the old order, and the elimination of this led to the departure of certain ‘leading comrades’, while others turned away from a party which was being transformed into a working party in a new sense. By and large the effects of the reorganization were salutary; and it is a pity that the Commission’s report has become a rare document and the story of its work so little known among Communist Party members.

At the same time, the centralization of power in the party, the break-up of branches into small groups and the emphasis upon work involved potentially a serious danger – that the party might be transformed into a mere executive mechanism, submissive in the hands of an uncontrolled leadership. Lenin showed himself aware that the resolution of the Third Comintern Congress on organization might do harm as well as good, and sounded a warning note in relation to its application, in his speech of November 13, 1922 [18], but his call for caution in this matter was overlooked by some, and perhaps deliberately ignored by others, when illness withdrew him shortly afterwards from regular political activity. In 1924 a significant exchange of views took place in the pages of the CR regarding the negative aspects of the reorganization. J.T. Murphy drew attention to the submergence of members in organizational work and the lack of education and discussion in the party. ‘Already the party lead is accepted too formally, and the voice of political criticism too seldom raised within our ranks’. Pollitt, replying, jeered at concern with thnking and discussion on the part of the membership – carrying out the line was the thing for them. T.A. Jackson, answering Pollitt, supported Murphy’s criticisms and asked: ‘Is an ignorant membership necessary to the working of the plan of organization adopted at Battersea?’ Was it to be accepted that the leading committee’s task was to ‘understand’ while ‘our job is only to carry out all instructions at the double, and stand to attention until the next order conies’? ‘The meaning of “instructions” ... is lost because the reason for their adoption at the point of incubation is rarely given ... Little or no discussion is possible, except on the pettiest of petty details.’ [19]

At the beginning of 1923, however, the negative potentialities of reorganization in a political setting in which the views of Lenin and Trotsky counted for less and less, and the consequences of bureaucratic degeneration in Soviet Russia spread throughout the international communist movement, were still hidden in the future. The immediate effects were positive. The weekly, The Communist, an essentially propagandist paper, was transformed into the Workers’ Weekly, a real newspaper of the day-to-day struggle, giving timely and detailed leads on the living issues arising in the working-class world. The transformation of the party’s structure helped to bring about a marked strengthening of its influence through the movement, both on the industrial and on the political side. Successful anti-war campaigns were conducted at the time of the Chanak crisis and on the occasion of the Curzon ultimatum. A Left wing appeared and became prominent in the Labour Party, its growth expressed in the defeat of Clynes as party leader and the emergence of the Clydeside group of MPs around John Wheatley, who maintained friendly relations with the Communist Party. [20] Above all, militant rank-and-file movements began to arise in union after union, with programmes of specific demands directed against the employers and definite proposals for democratizing and strengthening the unions themselves. [21] Of great importance in this connexion was the conference on British communist affairs held in Moscow in July 1923 and attended by most of the leaders of the CPGB. From this conference sprang the Industrial Committee of the Communist Party and the moves which led to the drawing together of the various rank-and-file movements into the National Minority Movement, the ‘trade union opposition’ which became a major factor in the British working-class movement in 1924-25. This was the last occasion on which the Comintern intervened in British communist affairs to good purpose.

The election held at the end of 1923 which brought the Labour Party into office for the first time saw the CPGB at its highest point since foundation. Though the Party had only about 4,000 members, the Workers’ Weekly sold 50,000 copies – more than any other Labour or socialist weekly – and communists received 66,500 votes in the election. Ties with the working class and its organizations were now substantial and increasing. The situation towards which Lenin had pointed four years before had at last come about, with the reformists obliged to show their true mettle as the ruling party. Trotsky said: ‘The result of the MacDonald regime, however it may end from the formal standpoint, will be a deepening of criticism and self-criticism in the ranks of the working class. For Britain the epoch of the formation of the Communist Party is only now really opening.’ [22] One of the key questions of British history between the wars is: why did the experience of the first Labour Government not lead to a great strengthening of the position of the Communist Party in Britain and so within a short period to that British revolution which down to 1926 was widely considered, among capitalists and workers alike, a perfectly definite possibility? Why, when at the beginning of 1924 the CPGB’s prospects of integrating itself organically in the British working-class movement, and becoming the leading force within it, were so promising, had so little advance been made two years later that such a disaster as the betrayal of the General Strike could occur?

The German Events of 1923: Comintern Reaction

When, at the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern in 1922, Trotsky had spoken of the prospect in the near future of a Labour government in Britain opening a ‘Kerensky period’ here, this forecast had been linked with that of a victorious revolution in Germany. [23] In July–October 1923 a revolutionary situation had arisen in Germany in connexion with the invasion of the Ruhr – and the Communist Party, held back by the new Zinoviev-Stalin leadership in Moscow, had ‘missed the bus’. The developments in Germany had attracted enormous attention, in Britain as elsewhere, the CPGB carrying on a campaign against intervention, should the revolution succeed. under the slogan: ‘Hands off Workers’ Germany!’ The disappointment felt at the revolution’s failure was proportional. On the basis of the defeat of the German workers German and international capital proceeded to ‘stabilize’ the situation in Germany (Dawes Plan), and revolutionary moods and strivings received a setback everywhere. Frank recognition of what had happened was the urgent need of the day, with adaptation of policies to the new conjuncture. This was recognized and urged by Trotsky in a number of speeches and articles in early 1924. [24] A very different state of mind prevailed, however, in the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party and of the Comintern. These bureaucrats were unwilling for prestige reasons to acknowledge that they had brought about a defeat, and were already too much out of touch with the realities of the working-class movement to understand the consequences which this defeat had produced. From this un-Marxist reaction of the Soviet leadership to the defeat of the German revolution, and their vindictive onslaught on Trotsky for trying to correct them in this matter, all the disintegration and corruption which now developed in the international communist movement had their beginning.

In his article on The Lessons of the German Events [25] Zinoviev affirmed that ‘as before, the tactics of the German Communist Party and of the entire Communist International must rest on the assumption that the proletarian revolution in Germany is a question of the near future’, and Pravda of April 20, 1924, treated the defeat of the German workers as ‘only an episode – the fundamental estimation remains as before’. [26] The Fifth Congress of the Comintern presented the world with a spectacle of political unrealism and fantasy which profoundly discredited the cause of communism and helped to check the advance of the Communist Parties in a number of countries, including Britain. ‘At this Congress argument no longer has weight. Whoever talks the most radical language carries the day.’ [27] Not only was the objectivity and genuine self-criticism characteristic of the first four Congresses replaced by wishful thinking and empty boasting, but the former freedom of debate was encroached upon by a threatening attitude on the part of the leadership towards critics and the organized howling-down of the latter. The British communists had to endure some ignorant hectoring by the German ‘Lefts’ now basking in Moscow’s favour, who were unable to distinguish between the problem of the Labour Government and that of the Labour Party. (As E.H. Brown, one of the CPGB spokesmen, ventured to remark, Lenin had spent some considerable time and effort curing British communists of the ideas which Ruth Fischer was now trying to foist upon them.) The entire approach to British affairs by the new leadership was remote from reality. Zinoviev spoke of the power of the British bourgeoisie having been so badly shaken that the Labour Party would be in office ‘for many years to come’, maintaining the so-called ‘Kerensky perspective’ of 1922. (Trotsky pointed out in his speech of July 28, Europe and America, that the defeat of the German revolution had radically changed the situation, and ‘in all probability MacDonald will this time cede place to the Tories, in accordance with all the rules of parliamentary procedure’.)

In was in 1924 that the enemies of communism could accuse the world communist movement, for the first time with adequate grounds, of adopting a political standpoint which was not justified by the actual facts but arose from the sordid requirements of the internal politics of the Soviet bureaucracy. [28] In 1924, too, they could point unanswerably to the phenomenon of dismissal and appointment of Communist Party leaderships in accordance with their readiness or otherwise to adapt themselves to the latest ‘line’ from Moscow. The first instance of this occurred with the Polish Communist Party – always something of a problem for Stalin, until in 1938 he dissolved it altogether and had its principal leaders executed. In December 1923 the Poles had written to the Soviet Communist Party expressing alarm at the prospect that Trotsky might be ousted from the leadership of the Comintern. The Fifth Congress of the Comintern was called upon ‘to pass a resolution condemning those chiefly responsible for this letter,’ and Stalin, in his speech on the Communist Party of Poland, virtually declared, war on any and every Party leadership that showed sympathy with the Opposition. [29] In Germany and a number of other countries sweeping changes were carried through so as to eliminate all who doubted whether the right faction was winning in Russia or questioned the wisdom of its interpretation of the political situation in the capitalist world.

All this was not lost upon the leadership of the British Communist Party: at the party Congress in May. Gallacher duly declared that ‘the German workers ... are even now preparing for the mighty struggle that will end the power of their own bourgeoisie’, and at the Comintern Congress the British delegation was one of a group which submitted a resolution denouncing the opposition in the Russian party. [30] Nevertheless, these were merely advance warning symptoms of a disease which did not show itself in strength until the following year. The effects of the 1924–25 Leftist phase in the Comintern and the first stage of the anti-Trotsky struggle were only indirect and muted so far as Britain was concerned, and the main line of development all through 1924 and on into the early months of 1925 was a continuation of the upward trend begun in 1923. [31]

The Party and the Minority Movement

In August 1924 the first annual conference of the National Minority Movement was held, with 200,000 workers represented. The conference called for the setting up of factory committees, as a stage towards industrial unionism and an instrument of workers’ control, and for further work to develop the trades councils as local centres of militant leadership. Of particular importance, however, was the resolution calling for a strengthening of the powers of the TUC General Council in order to enable this body to lead the entire mass of trade unionists in a common struggle such as a General Strike. The resolution warned:

It must not be imagined that the increase of the powers of the General Council will have the tendency to make it less reactionary. On the contrary, the tendency will be for it to become even more so. When the employing class realize that the General Council is really the head of the Trade Union movement, much more capitalist ‘influence’ will be brought to bear on it ... The reactionaries desire a General Council which will check and dissipate all advances by the workers. We of the Minority Movement desire a General Council which will bring into being a bold and audacious General Staff of the Trade Union movement ... We can guard against the General Council becoming a machine of the capitalists, and can really evolve from the General Council of Workers’ General Staff only by, in the first place and fundamentally, developing a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the Trade Union membership, and in the second place, by so altering the constitution of the General Council as to ensure that those elected thereon have the closest contact with the workers.

The call for increased powers for the General Council had been an element in communist policy since 1922, and from the beginning the necessity of associating such an increase of power with an increase of control from below had been stressed. Thus, Pollitt had written in the LM of November 1923 that ‘a real General Council must be established, with power to direct the whole movement, and not only with power, but under responsibility to Congress to use that power and direct the movement on the lines laid down each year by Congress’. J.R. Campbell, too, as editor of the NMM paper The Worker, had warned in an article in the CR of May 1924 that the slogan of ‘More Power to the General Council’ might be taken up by elements who wished to see the General Council not co-ordinating struggles but stifling forward movements; the only answer to this danger was to strengthen the militant spirit and control from below. The communist fraction at Trades Union Congresses worked steadily in this direction; e.g., it was they who secured that the General Council’s annual report should be issued to delegates seven days prior to Congress, instead of, as previously, when they took their seats. [32]

The successes achieved by the National Minority Movement in connexion with the strike wave of 1924, which was on a bigger scale than that of 1923, stimulated a reaction on the part of the trade union bureaucracy. This took two forms. The bureaucracy as a whole, hitherto lukewarm, compared with the “politicians”, on the question of excluding communists from the Labour Party, quite suddenly became galvanized into support for MacDonald on this issue – hence the decision of the 1924 Conference of the Labour Party attempting to close the door on individual membership by communists. [33] Part of the bureaucracy, however, while in no way linking up with the Minority Movement, began to adapt themselves to the increasingly Left mood of the workers by striking Left-wing attitudes, more particularly on international questions such as relations with the USSR. The initial response of the communists was to welcome this latter development as a reflection of the more militant mood among the workers, while guarding against the attribution of too much practical significance to it. Thus, Campbell, in the CR of September 1924: ‘It would be a suicidal policy, however, for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official Left wing’. The transformation of the trade union movement was still the main thing: ‘The formation of workshop committees will provide a necessary means of counteracting the bureaucracy’. And Dutt, in the LM of October 1924: ‘A Left wing in the working class movement must be based upon the class struggle, or it becomes only a manoeuvre to confuse the workers.’ The editorial in the CR of November 1924 was far from starry-eyed about the new ‘Lefts’:

On the trade union field we find the Left wing in the main representative of the smaller unions, e.g., Purcell, Bromley, Hicks. In previous years such unions played a very small part. But the increased activity of the masses has made it possible for them to gain prominence and ultimately position [in the General Council] by expressing ‘Left’ sentiments on a number of popular subjects, e.g., Soviet Russia ...

The Party and the TUC ‘Lefts’

On the initiative of the newly emergent Lefts among the top leadership of the trade unions, the Trades Union Congress of 1924 decided to send a delegation to the USSR. The delegation visited Russia in November–December 1924 and issued its report in February 1925. A paean of praise for the Stalinist regime, this report was written by the delegation’s expert advisers Harold Grenfell, A.R. McDonell and George Young, and the Labour Research Department’s Monthly Circular for March 1925 remarked of it that ‘the Report is in no sense to be taken as a work of critical Marxism, or even as something written from the normal trade union outlook. But just for this reason it is likely to have a special appeal to middle-class readers’. Another important aspect of the report can best be illustrated by means of an excerpt from the article Stalin: Slanders and Truth, by C. Allen, in the CR of January 1950:

The trade union delegation that visited Russia in November 1924 recognized the bourgeois character of Trotsky. ‘Trotsky, who only joined the party just in time to take a prominent part in the October Revolution, represents liberal non-conformity [in other words, capitalism – C.A.] as against die-hard communism’. (Russia, Official Report of the British Trades Union Delegation, London 1925, p. 15)

The group of British trade union leaders who issued this report – Purcell, Hicks, Bromley, Swales – about the same time began to make speeches in favour of unity between the trade unions of the USSR and of Britain as a step towards international trade union unity.[34] Very rapidly thereafter the entire work of the British Communist Party came to be redirected so as to concentrate on support for this group of trade union leaders in their work for Anglo-Russian unity, any demands and activities which might antagonize them being abandoned or played down. (As outlined in my article in the July-August Labour Review, this change of orientation did not bring about Anglo-Russian unity or any other good thing – it led through the betrayal of the General Strike to the Arcos Raid.)

The keynote for the new period was sounded in the editorial in the CR of March 1925: ‘The immediate task before the whole trade union movement in this country is the realization of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee’. Lozovsky, leader of the Red International of Labour Unions, wrote, in The World’s Trade Union Movement (English edition, April 1925) that ‘the plan of the Right wing is falling through. The British representatives, and particularly Purcell, have already gone far beyond the line marked out for them by the Right-wing leaders of the Amsterdam International’, and, while noting that the Trades Union Congress had rejected the communist-sponsored ‘unambiguous’ resolution on international trade union unity, had ‘made up for that’ by endorsing Purcell’s proposal that the General Council try to bring the various trends together: this was, comparatively speaking, a step forward. The speeches of Tomsky, leader of the Soviet trade unions, which were published in English [35], radiated confidence in Purcell and Co. R.P. Dutt’s Notes of the Month in the LM of May 1925 were devoted to the question of the working-class movement’s attitude in the sphere of foreign relations, especially Anglo-Russian relations, and throughout the succeeding twelve months that journal was dominated by the question of Anglo-Russian trade union unity and allied matters.

The implications of this switch of attention quickly showed themselves. In the article by P. Braun on Problems of the Labour Movement, in the LM for June, international trade union unity and the need for increased powers for the General Council were put in the forefront; factory committees being mentioned almost as an afterthought – and they were to be set up ‘with the backing of the General Council’. At the second annual conference of the National Minority Movement, in August, stress was laid on the granting of full powers to the General Council, with only a brief and vague reference to ‘obligation ... to use that power to fight more effectively the battles of the workers’, contrasting with the careful indication of the need to develop the control from below, lest the General Council use any increase in its powers to betray the workers, which had been a feature of the previous year’s decisions. Dutt’s Notes of the Month in the LM for September left nothing to chance, stressing the need for increased powers for the General Council without even a formal warning or qualification. The helpless trailing behind Purcell and Co. to which the Communist Party was now reduced found pitiful expression in Dutt’s Notes of the Month in the LM for November, where he tried to explain away the fact that Purcell and Co., those great Left-wingers, the darling of the Kremlin, had not lifted a linger to prevent the exclusion of the communists from the Labour Party when this was reaffirmed at the Liverpool conference in 1925. They had ‘failed even to attempt to put up a fight’; the trouble was that they lacked ‘self-confidence’, and ‘to overcome this weakness’ was ‘an essential task for the future’. wagging his finger. Dutt told these future betrayers of the general Strike that they had ... ‘acted very foolishly’. At the enlarged plenum of the Comintern executive in February 1926, George Hardy could cheerfully answer foreign comrades who wondered whether the campaign for ‘All Power to the General Council’ unlinked with a struggle for democratizing the unions, and with factory committees still ‘music of the future’, might not prove misconceived, by saying: ‘Should they use that power wrongly, it only means that we have got another additional task before us of forcing them in the right direction, which direction they must ultimately take.’ [36]

This political misorientation was the reason why, in spite of Red Friday and all that followed, the fiasco of the General Strike could nevertheless occur. It is heart-rending to observe how strongly the tide was running in favour of the Communist Party in the latter part of 1925 and in the opening months of 1926, when one knows what was to come. The arrest of some of the communist leaders in October 1925 evoked a wave of protest and indignation that dwarfed the reaction to the ‘Campbell case’ of the previous year. In spite of the anti-communist decision just passed at Liverpool, the Miners’ Federation headed the list of protesting organizations. While Wally Hannington was in jail he was elected to the executive committee of the London Trades Council. Every weekend great marches to Wandsworth prison took place, to cheer up the ‘class-war prisoners’ with revolutionary songs. The Annual Register for 1925 records how the widespread agitation for the release of the Twelve culminated ‘in a great demonstration at the Queen’s Hall, London, at which some Labour MPs ostentatiously used language which they held to be seditious in order to provoke the Home Secretary to have them arrested’. A petition for the release of the prisoners secured 300,000 signatures. Among those who stood bail for the Twelve during their trial were Lady Warwick and G.B. Shaw. MacDonald was provoked by all this to write to The Times asking ‘What good is it our fighting Bolshevism if it is to be manufactured by the Government?’ [37]

The leaders of the CPGB both underestimated the workers and overestimated the ‘Left’ trade union leaders. ‘Not one of us as we emerged from Wandsworth [three weeks before the strike began – J.R.] thought there would be such an event’ as the General Strike, writes J.T. Murphy, who was one of the Twelve, in his autobiography. [38] And, on the impact of the sell-out by Purcell and his associates, the editorial in the CR of August 1926 declared: ‘This treachery, unexpected and fatal. was greater than the certain and expected treason of Thomas.’ Throughout the international communist movement the calling off of the strike came as ‘a surprise and a shock’. [39]

The Comintern Leadership and the CPGB

Why did the Comintern leadership adopt, in the early months of 1925, the policy of unlimited confidence in the Purcell group and subordination of the British Communist Party to the convenience of this group? The ‘imminent revolutionary developments’ prospect of 1924 failed to justify itself. Already at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern Zinoviev hinted that perhaps the British Communist Party was not, after all, going to become a tremendous force in the immediate future, and if the Russians wanted to see big things happen forthwith in Britain they had better seek other instruments. [40] Before 1924 was out, Trotsky warned against the kind of manoeuvre to which the bankruptcy of the current ultra-Left policy could easily lead: ‘Opportunism expresses itself not only in moods of gradualism but also in political impatience: it frequently seeks to reap where it has not sown, to realize successes which do not correspond to its influence.’ [41] He himself saw the way forward in Britain as lying through a steady growth in the influence of the CPGB: ‘Slowly (much more slowly than we should wish) but irresistibly, British communism is undermining MacDonald’s conservative strongholds.’ [42]

By the end of 1924, signs of a new trend in Stalin’s views on the international working-class movement became apparent, following upon his declaration of the possibility of building socialism in isolated Russia. In December, in his preface to On the Road to October, he wrote of Trotsky’s being infatuated with the necessity for a revolution in the Western countries and underestimating the effectiveness of the ‘moral support’ already being given by the workers of western Europe to Soviet Russia. [43] Here already is the germ of the Anglo-Russian Committee and the policy based upon it, the scrapping of the CPGB as an independent revolutionary force. In January 1925, while emphasizing that the international proletariat was showing itself ‘tardy in making a revolution’, he spoke of what he called the ‘incipient split between the General Council of the TUC and the Labour Party’ as a sign that ‘something revolutionary ... is developing in Britain’. [44] (Here the apparent contradiction is resolved if one interprets ‘revolutionary’ in the latter quotation as meaning for Stalin ‘favourable to the defence of the Soviet Union conceived as something quite distinct from the revolution’.) Interviewed by a German communist in February 1925, Stalin spoke of a measure of stabilization having been achieved by German capitalism and placed a question-mark over the immediate possibility of revolution in Germany. [45] Allying himself with Bukharin, Stalin was now moving against the super-Leftist Zinoviev, that specialist in cheap pseudo-revolutionary optimism. In Pravda of March 22, 1925 he declared flatly that capital had ‘extricated itself from the quagmire of the post-war crisis’, ‘the positive trends that are favourable for capitalism’ were ‘gaining the upper hand’ and there was a ‘a sort of lull’. [46]

A year earlier it had been the rankest ‘Trotskyism’ to speak of stabilization; now however just when signs of the break-up of the stabilization of 1924 were beginning to appear in a number of countries, notably Britain and China – Stalin inscribed ‘stabilization’ on his banner and launched a struggle against all who questioned it. The task of the March–April 1925 plenum of the Comintern executive was to convey this new orientation to the parties and ensure their acceptance of it. The wretched Zinoviev did his best, but produced a speech of extraordinary confusion, trying to conceal the fact that the new line constituted a repudiation of that which he had promulgated at the Fifth Comintern Congress. One of the Czechoslovak delegates, Kreibich, drew attention to the contradictions in Zinoviev’s speech and referred him to Stalin’s Pravda article of March 22 for a correct exposition of the new set-up! So far as Britain was concerned, Lozovsky, in his speech at this plenum, clearly presented all the party’s tasks as revolving around the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee then just being formed: this was to be the meaning of ‘stabilization’ for the CPGB. What should have been only a tactical episode, temporary and auxiliary in character, was made to determine the entire strategical line of the British communists for a long period ahead. [47] ‘Stabilization’ was to be the basic assumption and framework of Comintern policy thereafter for two and a half years—a period that saw mighty mass upsurges in Britain and China, contradicting ‘stabilization’, and betrayed by Purcell and Chiang Kai-shek respectively thanks to the policy of the Comintern under Stalin’s leadership. [48]

The Struggle Against ‘Trotskyism’

The fact that after more than a year of disastrous make-believe the Soviet bureaucracy was forced to recognize stabilization – just as it was coming to an end in two of the principal centres of the capitalist world – did not, of course, mean that those who had faced the facts from the beginning now enjoyed any more friendly treatment – quite the reverse. Following the March–April 1925 plenum of the Comintern executive, a joint session of this body and the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party was held for the purpose of launching a new drive against ‘Trotskyism’, heralded by a speech from Bukharin, who had now replaced the discredited Zinoviev as the chief spokesman of the Stalin faction. Facilities for reply were increasingly restricted, but Trotsky still managed to voice his criticism of the new official line, even though only indirectly and allusively. His book Where Is Britain Going?, written in early 1925, had for its central theme the indispensability of building a strong Communist Party in Britain, which must combine flexibility of tactics and appreciation of the peculiarities of the British Labour movement with the maintenance of political independence and revolutionary principle. Deviations by British communists, in the early years, in the direction of sectarianism, had been opposed and corrected by the Soviet communists; now any tendency towards opportunism and tailism should likewise be resisted – certainly not encouraged.

In his last article in the CI [49] Trotsky urged the British communists to learn from the experience of the Russian Revolution: ‘Ready at any moment to act with the Left wing against all attempts at counter-revolution, the [Bolshevik] party at the same time [in 1917] pursued a ruthless ideological struggle against the parties which, against their will, found themselves “heading the revolution”. It was only this that made October possible.’ Why had not the Left wing in the TUC General Council played a greater role in the Labour Party? ‘The party continues to be led by extreme Right-wingers. This is to be explained by the fact that the party cannot be restricted to various Left sallies, but is bound to have a finished system of politics ... In order to rally their ranks, the Left-wingers will first of all have to collect their thoughts. The best of them are only capable of doing this under the blows of ruthless criticism based on the everyday experience of the masses.’ The divorce between words and deeds, benign gestures towards Russia and indifference or worse to the class struggle in Britain, must be exposed and broken down. On this it depended whether the Communist Party would ‘come through the first revolutionary stage at the head of the working masses, as we did in 1905, or ... let slip the opportunity of the revolutionary situation as the German party did in 1923. This latter danger is extremely real. It may be diminished only by aiding the Left wing to find its proper orientation for action (the real Left Wing and not Lansbury or Purcell).’ [50]

Replying (in an article written on May 3, 1926, but not published in International Press Correspondence until June) to a criticism by Bertrand Russell of his Where Is Britain Going?, Trotsky dealt with the idea that the policies of the Communist Parties should be subordinated to the alleged requirements of the ‘defence of the Soviet Union’. Though he discussed this question in relation to the rebuke given by Lenin and himself to the German comrades who tried in 1921 to justify their artificial and premature attempt at revolution by the need to protect the Soviet Republic from renewed intervention at the time of Kronstadt, the following words were well understood by informed readers to bear also upon the holding back of the workers’ movement, on the pretext of safeguarding Soviet interests, which was characteristic of the epoch in which Trotsky was writing: ‘It would be essentially wrong to believe that the proletariat of any country ought to take any steps whatever in the interests of the Soviet State which do not arise from its own interests as a class which is fighting for its complete emancipation’.

The full story of how the leadership of the British Communist Party put itself completely in the hands of the Stalin faction in 1925 will only become known, if ever, on the basis of personal reminiscences. It is possible, however, to trace some of the outlines from the printed records. The CR for February 1924 carried an article surveying the discussions in the Soviet Communist Party which gave a fair presentation of the views of Trotsky and Preobrazhensky. The LM of the same date carried a similarly objective and balanced report. Even after the resolution of the Thirteenth Conference of the Soviet Communist Party, condemning the ‘factional’ activities of Trotsky and classifying ‘Trotskyism’ as a petty-bourgeois deviation, had been published [51] the LM featured (July 1924), an article by Trotsky [52], though, it be sure, it was one that did not relate to the current disputes. As the campaign against ‘Trotskyists’ got under way in the Comintern, however, and assumed the form of dismissal and expulsion of officials of Communist Parties, King Street appears to have seen the red light. Anti-‘Trotskyist’ writings began to appear in British communist publications with increasing frequency, starting with an Alice-in-Wonderland exposition of the issues by Tom Bell in Workers’ Weekly of December 5, entitled The Truth About Trotsky (‘Needless to say, the ideas of Comrade Trotsky found ready support among the bureaucrats ...’). A resolution denouncing Trotsky was sent to Moscow. This aroused some uneasiness among a section of the membership, and at an all-London aggregate in January a motion was put forward regretting the ‘hasty’ action of the leadership. The mover, A.E. Reade, was so rash as to quote Lenin’s Testament to the meeting: A. Rothstein rose to dismiss this document as ‘a gross forgery’. R.P. Arnot explained that the Trotsky opposition was an affair of a few students, of no concern to the Russian workers (cf. similar ‘explanations’ of the Hungarian rising in 1956!), and the leadership got away with it, only 15 votes being cast against their action in a house of 200-odd. The same issue (January 23, 1925) of the Workers’ Weekly in which the report of this aggregate appeared carried an article affirming that ‘those few comrades in our party who think that our executive committee should not have adopted any decision until it (or even until the whole party membership) had become acquainted with the full text of Trotsky’s book [i.e., Lessons of OctoberJ.R.], instead of with a summary as was actually the case, only show that they have a terrible deal to learn yet before they become real communists ...’ (cf. Pollitt’s reply to critics of hastiness in condemnation of Tito in 1948). A piece by Bukharin attacking Trotsky (described in the editorial comment as ‘a brilliant contribution to the theory and practice of Leninism’) was published in the CR for February 1925. British communists were reminded of the urgent importance of remedying the inadequacy of their exposure of ‘Trotskyism’ in a letter from the Agitprop Department of the Comintern executive dated February 24. [53] In March the CR reproduced a fresh resolution of the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party directed against Trotsky: this showed, commented the editorial board, ‘that the Communist Party of Russia still remains a real Bolshevik Party, firm in its decisions, merciless in its discipline and united to the core’.

The Comintern executive meeting of March–April 1925 gave special attention to the danger of ‘Trotskyism’ and the need to fight against it. Tom Bell reported that the British Communist Party had ‘followed the whole discussion around what is called Trotskyism’, and had ‘no hesitation’ in associating itself with the Soviet party leadership. He added a snarl at ‘intellectuals’ who admired Trotsky, contrasting them with ‘workers’ who understood the need for ‘discipline’, and threw in a jeer at Trotsky’s ‘paper plans’ for industrialization. Following this meeting a regular anti-Trotsky campaign was opened up in the British Communist Press. The LM of April 1925 contained a review by W.N. Ewer of Trotsky’s biography of Lenin. Headed: The Twilight of Trotsky, the review described Lenin as being ‘as pathetic a book as was ever unwisely given to the world’, ‘the book of a sick man consoling himself by telling himself stories of his own great past’. ‘It is not good to look upon a strong man in the day of his sickness and mental weakness’. A similarly hostile review, by Arthur MacManus, appeared in the CR for May. It was not so easy to get away with this sort of thing in Britain, however, and no small embarrassment was caused by J.F. Horrabin’s pointing out in the May Plebs that a section of the book now being rejected as worthless had been published in the LM (Trotsky on Wells) as recently as the previous July: ‘But that was before the party ukase against Trotsky had gone forth.’ [54]

However, the Comintern ‘ukase’ had to be carried out, and May 1925 also saw the appearance of the book The Errors of Trotskyism, in which writings against Trotsky by Stalin, Kuusinen and others were assembled, with an introduction by J.T. Murphy. Virtuously, this British communist leader (himself to be expelled in 1932) rebutted the charge by supporters of Trotsky that ‘the present leaders were and are opposed to party democracy, when such was and is not the case.’ The CR for June printed a new speech by Bukharin against Trotskyism, and the LM of the same date a review by R.P. Dutt of Eastman’s Since Lenin Died, ridiculing the picture there given of a bureaucracy, against whom Lenin had warned, intriguing against good communists. People who wrote such things were disloyal to the working class. [55] In Plebs for August Gallacher sounded off against Trotsky’s ‘egotism’.

The knowing grins of anti-communist commentators compelled the adoption of a less obviously pre-fabricated attitude, a little more subtlety. This became particularly urgent when a translation of Trotsky’s Where Is Britain Going? appeared in America [56] and at once attracted much attention in the Labour movement here (an extract was given in Plebs for October 1925). In the LM for November and December an article entitled Towards Capitalism or Socialism? by L.D. Trotsky was printed. Actually, this was merely the first, introductory section of the work with this title, published some months earlier in Russia, and contained nothing controversial: the critique of Bukharin’s policy which constituted the main point of Towards Capitalism or Socialism? was in the later sections, which were omitted without acknowledgement by the LM! [57] The LM for April 1926 carried a review by R.P. Dutt of Trotsky’s book on Britain – which, while fulsomely praising the author’s brilliance, etc., failed completely to relate the book to the current situation and omitted to discuss the very topical criticisms of the party line that were implicit in it.

When the Communist Party at last brought out an edition of its own of Where Is Britain Going? it omitted the preface specially written by Trotsky for the American edition in May 1925, which included these words: ‘The inference to which I am led by my study is that Britain is heading rapidly towards an era of great revolutionary upheavals’; and, though giving the bulk of the introduction written in May 1926 for the second German edition, it omitted the word ‘revolutionary’ from the phrase ‘the revolutionary prediction for the immediate future of British imperialism made in this book’ and also an entire paragraph which included these words: ‘The most important task for the truly revolutionary participants in the General Strike will be to fight relentlessly against every sign or act of treachery, and ruthlessly to expose reformist illusions.’ It was understandable that the CPGB leadership should be shy of Trotsky’s views on the immediate prospect in Britain in 1925–26, for about the same time as his book first appeared it had held a Congress which ‘gave no countenance to the revolutionary optimism of those who hold that we are on the eve of immediate vast revolutionary struggles. It recognized that capitalism had stabilized itself temporarily’. (Workers’ Weekly, June 5, 1925)

The Bureaucratic Degeneration of the CPGB

By the beginning of 1926 the CPGB had acquired the reputation, in spite of its small size, of being a model section of the Comintern, in one very important respect. The resolution of the enlarged plenum of the Comintern executive held in February praised the ‘absence of factional struggles in the British party’. [58] In this respect the CPGB offered a striking contrast to many other constituent parties of the Comintern, and it was to retain and consolidate this characteristic of exceptional readiness to follow the latest Moscow line. Even in 1929, Campbell, Rothstein and the others who at first resisted the ‘Third Period’ swing to the Left came to heel as soon as they saw that the Comintern meant business. The Murphy and ‘Balham Group’ affairs in 1932 were teacup-storms by Continental or American standards. (It complements this relative docility of the British Communist Party that in this country ‘Trotskyism’ developed in the nineteen-thirties mainly outside the ranks of communists and ex-communists, through the ILP). The factors determining this docility were doubtless many, and at present one can only speculate on the basis of insufficient material. Of some importance, probably, was the circumstance that the reorganization of 1923 equipped a small, poor party with a top-heavy hierarchy of full-time officials. In the atmosphere of international bureaucratic centralism as it developed from 1923 onwards these officials evolved a close-knit freemasonry, based on unquestioning loyalty to the Comintern leadership. As it grew more and more apparent that, if only because of the Comintern-imposed policy, the CPGB was not going to lead a revolution in Britain, the importance of conformity to the current Moscow line, as against respect for Marxist principle or the facts of the situation in Britain, would acquire increasing weight. There is evidence, moreover, that already by 1925 the financial aid of the Comintern, funnelled through Petrovsky-Bennett, Moscow’s representative with the CPGB, was providing essential support for the party ‘machine’. [59]

Whatever the details of the mechanism of control, it is plain that the Soviet bureaucracy contrived to secure the connivance of the CPGB officials in transforming what in 1922–24 had been a party full of promise of becoming the Marxist leadership of the British workers, into a servile instrument of their will that they were thenceforth able to use as they fancied, ruining it, in the process, as a Communist Party in the true original sense. As Trotsky wrote in his Letter on the Work of the British Section in May 1933, ‘the study and critical examination of the policy of the British Communist Party in the last eight or ten years’, or ‘even the mere selection of the most striking quotations and the presentation of them in chronological order, would lay bare not only the glaring contradictions of the “general line” but also the inner logic of those contradictions, i.e., the violent vacillations of the Centrist bureaucracy [of the Soviet Communist Party] between opportunism and adventurism. Every one of those tactical zigzags pushed communists, sympathizers and potential friends back, to the right, to the left, and finally into the swamp of indifference. We can say, without the least exaggeration, that the British Communist Party has become a political thoroughfare ...’ Far too many of those who have passed along that ‘political thoroughfare’ have set off from it in the direction of indifference or even enmity to Marxism-Leninism and the heritage of the October Revolution and of the first four Congresses of the Comintern. Study of the history of the party which has disappointed them may perhaps help some recent ex-communists to understand the real causes of its degeneration and enable them to find a better path.

* * *


1. Cresset Press. 21s.

2. Omitting, however, the valuable pamphlet The Reds and the General Strike, published by the Communist Party in June 1926.

3. J. Symons, op. cit., p. 64.

4. An adulatory obituary of Purcell, without one word regarding his role in 1926, was contributed to the LM of February 1936 by John Mahon. (Purcell’s thoughts on the betrayal of the General Strike are not to be found in speeches or writings. They must have been bitter.)

5. Symons. op. cit., pp. 135–6.

6. See also the quotation in the editorial in the CR for October 1926 from an unpublished article received from an unnamed comrade, reproaching the party leaders for ‘failing to take steps to provide an alternative trade union leadership nationally, in anticipation of the breakdown of the General Council ... [This was] the whole party feeling during the General Strike: the feeling that the party was not responsible for the central lead – that had already been given by the General Council, and we could not alter it.’

7. Pravda, May 26, 1926.

8. See E. Stanley, CR, December 1924: a critical review of the experience of the unemployed movement.

9. In August 1921 the CPGB stood Bob Stewart against a Labour candidate in the by-election at Caerphilly. In his election address he declared: ‘We oppose the Labour Party for the simple reason that it is not a Labour Party at all.’ Though the South Wales Miners’ Federation had just affiliated to the Red International of Labour Unions. Stewart found himself at the bottom of the poll.

10. L. Trotsky. Introduction to The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 1 (New York, 1945).

11. See article by R.P. Arnot in LM, October 1921.

12. In this period as a whole, see the survey of the first four years of the CPGB in CR, August 1924. From the party’s proposals during the engineering lock-out developed the programme of the Metal Workers’ Minority Movement – increase of wages of £1 on all existing rates; 44-hour working week; two weeks’ holiday with pay: amalgamation of all the unions in the industry into one: formation of workshop committees representing all grades.

13. Summary of the correspondence in S.R. Graubard, British Labour and the Russian Revolution (1956), p. 149.

14. The Communist, April 1, 1922.

15. V.I. Lenin, Notes of a Publicist, Selected Works (12-vol. ed.), vol. 10, p. 313. See also the advice against ‘stewing in one’s own juice’. ibid., p. 304.

16. Trotsky, op. cit., vol. 2 (1953), p. 174.

17. Communist Party Policy and The Communist Party, the Labour Party and the United Front (both CPGB, 1922).

18. Lenin. op. cit., pp. 332–3. See the discussion of this speech in A. Rosmer, Moscou sous Lénine (1953).

19. CR, January, February and April 1924. See also Report of Sixth Congress of CPGB (May 1924) and articles by E. Cant and C.M. Roebuck in CR of March and June 1924. Cant, at this time party organizer for London, warned against a tendency for members to become robots, and observed that ‘the comrade who said he was too busy selling the Workers’ Weekly to read it himself is not a myth’. Significantly, the same negative consequences of reorganization that were noticed in Britain were also noticed in the French party: see chap.xi, La Bolchévisation du parti, in G. Walter, Histoire du Parti Communiste français (1948).

20. On personal relations between Clyde Group MPs and communist leaders, see W. Gallacher, The Rolling of the Thunder (1947). For the role of communist journalists on the Daily Herald in 1923, see Hamilton Fyfe, My Seven Selves (1935).

21. The spring of 1923 saw the first big mass actions in industry since 1920 – among dockers, vehicle-builders, jute-workers, builders, boilermakers, agricultural labourers – and the first check to the decline in trade union membership. At the Labour Party Conference of 1923 the leadership was forced to withdraw the so-called ‘Edinburgh clause’ adopted the previous year, recommending trade unions not to elect communists as their delegates. It was understood that a number of unions would have withdrawn their delegations altogether if the credentials of the communists among them had been refused.

22. Trotsky, Through What Stage Are We Passing? (June 21, 1924) Cf. the resolution of the executive committee of the Comintern, February 6, 1924: ‘If, as is expected, the Labour Government betrays the interests of the proletariat, it will thus offer the best object lesson to the proletariat, enabling it to free itself from the illusions of capitalist democracy. and will thereby accelerate the revolutionizing of the working class: Radek wrote, in the CI, no. 3 (new series): ‘For the first time in history the British communists have been given the opportunity of transforming themselves ... into a mass party.’

23. Trotsky, The First Five Years, vol. 2, pp. 211, 301.

24. E.g., On the Roads of the European Revolution, April 11, 1924. ‘We are living in the interval between the first and the second revolutionary blow. How long this interval will last we don’t know.’ (In this speech Trotsky forecast that the effect of the Dawes Plan would be to improve the position of German capitalism at the price of intensified economic difficulties for Britain – as actually occurred in 1925.) See also his introduction to The First Five Years. For a comprehensive survey of the 1924–25 and 1925–27 phases in Comintern policy, see his The Third International after Lenin and The Permanent Revolution.

25. CI, no. 2 (new series).

26. Cf. J.V. Stalin, letter to Demyan Byedny, July 1924 (Works, vol. 6, p. 288), and review of the international situation, September 1924 (ibid. pp. 292ff.)

27. ‘Ypsilon’, Pattern for World Revolution (Chicago and New York, n.d. [1947]), p. 95.

28. The communist putsch in Estonia in December did ‘untold harm to ... the idea of proletarian revolution all over the world’. (C.L.R. James, World Revolution, 1917–36 [1937]) Even greater scandal was caused by the bomb outrage in Sofia Cathedral in April 1925, which may be taken as concluding this phase of Comintern policy.

29. Stalin, op. cit. pp. 276.

30. Zinoviev ‘prepared’ the constituent parties for the Comintern Congress by sending representatives to them to explain the views of the dominant faction on the key issues. According to the account of a meeting of the central committee of the CPGB in Workers’ Weekly, June 6, 1924, ‘a report was presented by the representative of the Comintern on two of the principal questions arising before the Congress – the question of the German retreat and the controversy in the Russian Communist Party’.

31. Significant in relation to developments in a later period is the controversy which took place between R.P. Dutt and J.T. Murphy in the CL, 1924–25. Following the fall of the MacDonald Government, Dutt rushed into print to proclaim the ‘decomposition’ of the Labour Party, its transformation into an ‘obstacle’ to the workers’ struggle, and the rise of the Communist Party to ‘replace’ it. Murphy showed the baselessness of Dutt’s views, referring to him as one who ‘sees the Labour movement from the newspapers, as one reading from afar, and impatiently dismisses the Labour Party as finished’. Dutt reaffirmed his view that the strengthening of the Communist Party and of the Labour Party were mutually incompatible aims, and referred to the resolutions of the Fifth Comintern Congress for backing. Murphy rejoined that it was not the task of the CPGB ‘to split the Labour Party, although a split may be forced upon the Labour Party by the reactionaries, but certainly not by us’: and commented shrewdly on the ‘non-historical approach to the question and the Leftist kink which repeatedly manifests itself in Comrade Dutt’s outbursts’ (CI, nos. 8, 9, 11, 12 [new series].) The Comintern’s swing to the Right in 1925 deprived Dutt’s special flair of any immediate bearing upon policy. In 1928–29, however, when the needs of the faction fight inside the CPSU, together with the disastrous failure of the Right zigzag of 1925–27, dictated a sharp swing to the Left in the parties of the Comintern, and some of the British communist leaders were dragging their feet, then Dutt came into his own, as the high priest of the ‘fight against social-fascism’. (See J. Redman., The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925–29 [1957].)

32. H. Pollitt, CR, October 1923.

33. G.D.H. Cole, A History of they Labour Party from 1914 (1948), pp. 146–7. See also CR, July 1924, on the extraordinary outburst of feeling against the communists on the part of trade union leaders in connexion with the railway strike of that period. The standing of the communists in the working-class movement at this time was still such (shown, e.g., in the tremendous protest against the arrest of J.R. Campbell, which indirectly brought about MacDonald’s resignation; the endorsement and election of Saklatvala as a Labour candidate in Battersea; and the increase in the circulation of the Workers’ Weekly to 100,000 during the election campaign) that the attempt to exclude them from the Labour Party remained largely inoperative until after the 1925 Conference, and even then met with the organized and determined resistance, through the formation of the National Left-Wing Movement, described in my pamphlet The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925 29. It was only after the collapse of the General Strike that the exclusion policy could be put through on a grand scale; and by their policy change of 1928–29 the communists bolted on their own side the door that had been shut in their faces, voluntarily renouncing the prospect of getting the exclusion decision reversed.

34. More than somewhat belatedly, in his introduction to Lozovsky’s British and Russian Workers, published in the latter part of 1926, Pollitt reproached the Russian trade union leader for underestimating the significance of mass pressure led by the National Minority Movement as the decisive factor in this development. The NMM held a successful conference on international trade union unity in January 1925; the delegation to Russia ‘had kept absolutely silent on the whole question of unity’ from its departure from Russia in December till after this conference.

35. M. Tomsky, Getting Together (Speeches, 1924–25), published by the Labour Research Department, with an introduction by R.P. Arnot, 1925.

36. Orders from Moscow? (CPGB, 1926). After the terrible damage had been done, Dutt by implication criticized the glossing over in 1925–26 of the issue of structural reform of the trade unions which had been put in the forefront in 1922–24. In his Notes of the Month in the LM for September 1926, he looked back at the Scarborough TUC of a year before, to exclaim upon ‘the monstrously unrepresentative character of the existing trade union machinery. Had there existed a real Congress directly elected by the whole organized working-class movement, and had that Congress been able in its turn to elect by free vote a real leadership for the coming struggles and expressing its outlook, the history of the next twelve months would have been different.’

37. On this episode, see E.H. Brown, The Persecution of the CPGB, in CI, no. 18 (new series).

38. J.T. Murphy, New Horizons (1941), p. 220.

39. CI, January 30, 1927, article on the world-wide solidarity campaign.

40. Passage quoted in my article in Labour Review, July–August 1957. R.W. Postgate drew attention in Plebs for March 1925 to the significance of this passage when Zinoviev’s speech was reprinted by the CPGB under the title Towards TU Unity!

41. Trotsky, Introduction to The First Five Years, vol. 1.

42. Trotsky, Prospects and Tasks in the East (1924).

43. Stalin, op. cit., pp. 374ff.

44. Ibid., vol. 7, pp. 11ff., 21, 26.

45. Ibid., pp. 34ff.

46. Ibid., pp. 51ff.

47. Bolshevising the Communist International (1925). The letter of May 8, 1925, from the Comintern section supervising work in the Co-operative movement to the Co-operative fraction of the CPGB (Document no. 17 in Cmd 2682 of 1926, documents confiscated in a police raid on 16 King Street) listed ‘support for the actions of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee’ first among the urgent tasks of British Co-operators.

48. That the revolutionary movement was going through ‘a period of ebb’ was reaffirmed by Stalin at the Fourteenth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, in December 1925. Not the revolution. but ‘the workers’ confidence in our State’, to be secured by visits from delegations such as the British TUC delegation, was ‘the fundamental antidote to imperialism and its interventionist machinations’. (Works, vol. 7, pp. 271, 291.) The enlarged plenum of the Comintern executive held in February 1926 once again reaffirmed this estimate (see CR, April 1926, and LM, May 1926).

49. Problems of the British Labour Movement, CI, no. 22 (new series).

50. The materials constituting this article were written between December 1925 and March 1926, but the CI did not publish it until after the General Strike. The article Problems of the British Labour Movement, like the book Where is Britain Going?, deserves reprinting. (A resolution of the central committee of the CPGB, protesting against this article, and condemning Trotsky’s call for the Soviet trade unions to withdraw demonstratively from the Anglo-Russian Committee, was printed in the Workers’ Weekly for August 13, 1926.)

51. CR, April 1924.

52. On H.G. Wells’s interview with Lenin in 1920.

53. Document no. 14 in Cmd 2682 of 1926.

54. Ewer had also reviewed Trotsky’s book in the Daily Herald – carrying inner-party controversy into the non-party Press: – and there had written of Trotsky as ‘a senile colonel gabbling in an armchair’.

55. The Workers’ Weekly of May 8 devoted a whole page to an excoriation of Eastman (Since Eastman Lies). According to a letter by Eastman in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly of August 29, he sent to the LM a reply to the attacks on his book which had appeared in the communist Press: the editor had accepted this, subject to approval by the party’s political bureau, but the latter had refused permission for it to be published.

56. Under the title Whither England?

57. When the full text of Towards Capitalism or Socialism? was published in book form in the following year by Messrs. Methuen, Maurice Dobb gave it a hostile review in Plebs of October 1926. Trotsky, he pointed out, led the ‘industrialist’ wing of the Soviet Communist Party, a wrong-headed lot; his plans for industrializing the USSR were ‘the stuff that dreams are made on’.

58. Orders from Moscow? See also LM, May 1926.

59. Cmd 2682 of 1926 and Cmd 3125 of 1928.

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