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Harry Wicks

The Balham Group

(September 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.71, September 1974, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began
Reg Groves
Pluto Press, £1.80 (hardback)/75p (paperback)

THIS BOOKLET by Reg Groves, is more than the story of the evolution of a group of communists to become the founders of the Trotskyist movement in this country. It is also a critical evaluation of the Communist Party set against social and political history from the ending of the General Strike to the assumption of power by Hitler in February 1932, five crowded years in the history of our class.

The period includes the aftermath of the strike, the rise and fall of the Second Labour government, the world economic crisis of capitalism and its impact on the labour movement, and – more forbidding – the menacing growth of Fascism. These were years in which Communist Policy swung from right to extreme left only to find in the maturing revolutionary crisis of 1931 its impotence as a revolutionary force.

As the General Council of the Trades Union Congress sought in vain to win the Miners to acceptance of the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, the Samuel memorandum, before keeping their appointment with Baldwin to unconditionally surrender the General Strike, so throughout the country police repression against the workers increased in momentum. It seemed as if with synchronised timing everything was done to intimidate the unbroken ranks of the striking workers.

Groves writes of that moment in the struggle:

‘Witnessing, on the day of the TUC’s abject surrender, brutal police attacks on a peaceful Poplar meeting and on scores of poor men’s homes; the triumph displayed that day by our rulers and their toadies, and the ferocity of the employers’ counter offensive – checked by a spontaneous rally of the strikers – it certainly seemed unlikely that the capitalists would allow power to pass from their hands without a struggle involving force.’

The compelling need was a revolutionary party that would organise the workers for the final struggle for socialist power. With that conviction Groves and hundreds of militants joined the Communist party.

At that time the party doubled its membership. The reformist and trade union leadership was heavily compromised. The party’s members with courage and self sacrifice strove to re-form the ranks, to check the exodus from the unions against a wave of victimisation that the employers were operating, and above all else to rally support for the embattled miners.

The surrender of the strike at the moment of its growing strength, in the words of Dutt, struck the workers like a thunderbolt. Neither the party, nor the militants, nor the class were prepared for sucha betrayal. For two years the party had campaigned for ‘All Power to the General Council’. The ‘left’ trade union leaders, Hicks, Swales and Purcell whom the party had built up, had opened their press to, and had muted their criticism of, were completely identified with the betrayal.

The entire policy and strategy of the party and the Communist International had been built on the premise that the ‘lefts’ on the General Council could be the fulcrum by which the trade unions could be moved in a revolutionary direction. The united front between the Russian and British unions was now in ruins. The failure of the party leadership to recognise that fact, and to boldly make an independent estimate of the situation was one of the sources for the party’s crisis.

The reformist leadership now embarked on their programme of industrial peace. To safeguard their own base they launched a frantic campaign to isolate the militants of the Minority Movement and the communists from the labour movement. All their democratic pretensions went with the wind. Trade union branches were liquidated, trades councils disaffiliated and relations with the Russian Trade Unions ended. In the movement that was shocked and disillusioned, the cleavage between a reformist and revolutionary was razor edge sharp. In this situation, the Communist International made its left turn and inspired the struggle for a change of policy for the British party.

At the ninth plenum of the Comintern held in the early months of 1928, the new line for the British party was spelt out by Bukharin. With the unanimous agreement of the party leadership it was decided that the time had come to put Lenin’s Left Wing Communism on the shelf. Now was the hour to openly fight the Labour Party. The sparse forces to hand for such a contest, the declining membership and the reformist pressure to isolate us from the labour movement received scant consideration. In a few lines Groves recaptures the atmosphere within the party at that time. Intense discussion, a membership most critical of the leadership, but the political discussion following all too closely to the predetermined line formulated by the Comintern. The climax was reached at the 11th party congress held in December 1929.

To that congress the Presidium of the Comintern addressed a letter. Whilst sharing the opinion expressed by Groves that the documents of the time were dry and boring, it is of importance that the new generation of revolutionaries should know the politics then being imposed on the Party. It might escape the attention of Klugman, the party’s historian, but the fatal advice forced on the party at its 11th congress is worth recording.

‘Up to the Ninth Plenum the line of the party should have been to fight for the masses and to lead their struggles mainly by working in the Labour Party and the trade unions. The Ninth Plenum radically changed this line. The intensification of the class struggle, the radicalisation of the working class, the growing Fascisation of Social Democracy and the reformist trade unions brought the Communist Parties face to face with the task of independently leading the class struggle of the proletariat.

‘The new line demands that the Communist Parties, while not in the least diminishing their activity in the trade unions, initiate and develop independent organs of struggle embracing all workers – organised and particularly the unorganised – for the fight against the employers as well as against the fascist Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy.’ (Communist Review, Vol.2 No.2, p.80)

Only seven months before, the Labour Party had received 8¼ million votes, won 287 seats and for the first time became the largest party in parliament. The gap between the Communist Party and the class was incredibly wide.

From the Leeds congress, with all its ideological confusion, there emerged the group of Groves, Purkiss and Sara. Each had played a part in winning the London membership against the party leadership. They were not left oppositionists; in the circumstances of that time, the insularity of party politics, it could not be otherwise. But as a group they were developing a criticism that was being fortified by their study of the writings of Leon Trotsky. It is interesting to note Groves’ contribution to the party discussion, particularly in the light of later attacks on him as a sectarian.

‘The key to a mechanised army lies in the factory; the key to the achievement of the leadership of the masses lies in the factory and to this our agitational and trade union work must increasingly turn.’

In contrast with the majority of delegates, Groves, Purkis and Sara came away from the congress with the shared conviction that the struggle within the party was far from over.

With good fortune for the international workers’ movement there occurred a dramatic breakthrough in the censorship of the writing by the Russian left opposition on the ‘left turn’ of the Communist International. The American, James P. Cannon and the Canadian Maurice Spector had, as delegates to the sixth congress ot the Comintern (August 1928), had the opportunity to read Leon Trotsky’s critique of the draft programme of the International. The impact of that criticism had a profound effect on them both. So much so that they resolved to smuggle a copy out of the Soviet Union, by no means an easy feat.

Within weeks of Cannon’s return to the States, he and many members of his faction were expelled from the American party. They immediately founded the Communist League and published their paper The Militant. Trotsky now had for the first time since his exile the opportunity of communicating with communist workers who stood in his own tradition. Sympathetic litterateurs, however devoted and loyal, could not measure up to the tasks ahead. The significance of the development of the American Left opposition must not be belittled. In spite of the critical comments of Groves, the Balham group no less than Groves himself, gained enormously from their early contact with the American Militant. As the struggle was renewed in the party, our horizons were wider, our confidence stronger, the questions we raised and fought for had both a national and international significance.

For thirty years there has been a voluminous literature of the horrors of the last war. The bestiality of Hitlerism has occupied the media for years. On the television the carnage has been for all to see. No fact escaped attention, from the paranoia of Hitler and Stalin to the mighty bulldozers shovelling into mass graves working men, women and children. The area that has escaped attention is the conditions that made it possible for Hitler to achieve power. This, it seems, both Social Democratic and Communist historians slur over.

In these pages Groves relates the efforts to raise a discussion in the British party in those fateful days: the cowardly silence of the party leadership when all could see the rising graph of the Nazi party electoral successes, the fatal opposition to the policy of the united front between the German Social Democracy and the German Communist Party, the change of policy in the moment of panic, when Hitler proceeded with power in his hands to crush all vestiges of working-class organisation, be it Social Democratic or Communist. With the documents reproduced here and the statements of the comrades of the Balham group, this short historical essay of Reg Groves is worthy of a place on the bookshelf of all revolutionaries.

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