By John O’Mahony
After considerable discussion and at Lenin’s urging, the Second Congress of the Communist International (1920) came out for CP affiliation to the Labour Party.
“The Second Congress of the Third International should express itself in favour of Communist groups, or groups and organisations sympathising with Communism in England, affiliating to the Labour Party... For as long as this party permits the organisations affiliated to it to enjoy their present freedom of criticism and freedom of propaganda, agitational and organisational activity for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviet form of government, as long as that party preserves its character as a federation of all the trade union organisations of the working class, the Communists should without fail take all measures and agree to certain compromises in order to have the opportunity of influencing the broadest masses of the workers, of exposing the opportunist leaders from a platform that is higher and more visible to the masses and of accelerating the transition of political power from the direct representatives of the bourgeoisie to the ‘labour lieutenants of the capitalist class’ [the Labour Party] in order that the masses may be more quickly weaned from their last illusions on this score...”
In 1922 the CP anatomised the Labour Party thus:
“A Labour Party which was ruled and organised primarily by officials of independent and often warring unions inevitably became entirely divorced from the socialist or revolutionary idea. Its leaders, in their overwhelming majority, were financially and otherwise no longer members of the working class, but of the middle class. They were often Liberals, and might be conservatives, in all else but defence of their own unions, finances and privileges. (This was particularly noticeable, again, in the Parliamentary group).
“Thus, even before the war, the Labour Party had become quite distinctly a class organisation of the proletariat which was dominated by that section of the middle class whose profession it was to organise trade unions”.
Nevertheless, this was the actually existing labour movement in politics — the highest level the mass of workers had so far achieved, and along the right road.
In fact Labour was as yet no closed-off, tightly-controlled party. The ultra-left communist Sylvia Pankhurst was a delegate to its 1918 conference. The major component of the new CP, the BSP, was affiliated to it. The CP could simply have informed the Labour Party that the BSP had changed its name.
Concerned to raise a clear, visible banner of communism and to take their proper place within the ranks of the new Communist International, the CP leaders emphasised their separateness and sought affiliation as if going through a ritual. Leaders of the party like J T Murphy — who came from the small De Leonite Socialist Labour Party, a breakaway from the SDF in 1903 which, though it had merits of its own, exaggerated and systematised the sectarian faults of the parent body — made speeches that were not designed with diplomacy in mind. “We take them by the hand today the better to take them by the throat tomorrow”, said Murphy. They were refused affiliation.
Yet there was, in 1922-24, even a London Communist Labour MP, Saklatvala. He was no ordinary MP. The best description, telling us much about the Labour Party then, is that of the communist and Trotskyist veteran Harry Wicks:
“In the twenties, to the consternation of the Liberal-minded Labour leadership of Henderson and MacDonald, Battersea North elected as their member of parliament the Indian Saklatvala. Not only was he an Indian but a Communist, and he was sponsored by the united Battersea labour movement.
“The link that Saklatvala established with his worker constituents was not that of the proverbial surgery: ‘Can I help you?’, ‘Have you any problems?’ At that time the entire working class had a problem, that of survival against the employers’ lock-outs, widespread unemployment and the downward slide of the sliding scale of wages agreements.
“Saklatvala spoke at factory gate meetings and introduced the monthly report-back from Westminster. There were great meetings. Long before the doors of the town hall opened, queues formed just like they used to at Stamford Bridge.
“The platform was always crowded. Sak, as he was affectionately known, was flanked by the entire executive of the Trades and Labour Council and numerous representatives of Indian and colonial organisations. He was short in stature, broad-shouldered, with flashing eyes, and was a magnificent orator.
“Those monthly report-back meetings on the doings in Parliament stirred hundreds into activity. The Battersea labour movement pulsated with life and was united. Marxist classes held by the old Plebs League flourished. Trade union branches were crowded”.
Despite refusals, the question of Communist Party affiliation remained open for years. Until the Liverpool conference of 1925, Communists could be trade union delegates to Labour constituency committees and to Labour Party conference. After 1925, three dozen Constituency Labour Parties let themselves be disaffiliated rather than expel Communists, and formed an organisation of the disaffiliated Labour Parties, the National Left Wing Movement, which also embraced left-wing groups in other constituencies.
In the unions, the CP, working from the low point of trade-union defeat and depression in 1922, built the rank-and-file “Minority Movement” into a force claiming as its affiliates trade union bodies enclosing a quarter of the organised trade unionists, then numbering about four million.
In retrospect the experience in Britain fits into this summary of the historical experience: wherever mass reformist organisations of the working class existed at the time of the formation of the Communist International, if the CI failed to win over the majority or a big minority of the old organisations then the CI failed to become the main force in the working-class movement.
That is a true general summary, but it obscures the processes that shaped the events in Britain. Up to the middle 1920s it was still possible for communists to have superseded the reformists as the dominant force in the British labour movement. The small CP, pursuing an orientation to the mass labour movement, trade unions and Labour Party alike, was, despite, sometimes, a sectarian style and manner, essentially not sectarian. It put forward perspectives for the labour movement and the objective needs of the working class, and fought for them throughout the labour movement, engaging in united-front work with the reformists.
It had great and growing influence in the trade unions, organising the rank and file, building on rank-and-file militancy where pre-1917 British Marxists had not known what to do with it. It had influence and supporters in the Labour Party. Above all, the class struggle was moving to the biggest confrontation in British history: the battle between reformist and revolutionary perspectives was far from settled.
Even after the nine months of minority Labour government in 1924, the Labour Party had not yet hardened definitively into the reformist mould. It was the subsequent policies of the Marxists, as much as the desires of the reformist leaders, that gave to the political labour movement the shape it was to have for the rest of the twentieth century, just as the deficiencies of the pre-World War One Marxists had let reformist leaders call the tune in the development before 1918.
It was the rise of Stalinism that destroyed the CP’s prospects. From far away Stalin shaped the history of the British labour movement.
In Russia a new bureaucratic ruling class moved towards displacing the working class from power by first producing its own world outlook. The Bolsheviks had made a revolution in backward Russia believing that socialism was impossible there: the October revolution was but a first step of the world revolution. Civil war and wars of intervention followed. The revolution survived, maimed and isolated. As the bureaucrats infesting the state that the workers had erected in self-defence moved to take to themselves material privileges and to seize power for themselves, their leader Stalin proclaimed that backward Russia could build “socialism in one country”, despite the domination of the world by capitalism.
The CPs outside Russia might as well act as political border guards for the Soviet Union.
This was not said clearly, but the logic unfolded very quickly. In Britain it meant that since the CP was small, Stalin looked for more powerful local support for Russia. While being anything but revolutionary at home, many trade-union leaders were friendly to the Russian Revolution. The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee linked Russian trade unionists with British trade union bureaucrats, some of whom had been in the BSP. It gave them prestige with the left and made control of the rank and file easier.
That is how it was when in May 1926 the TUC called a general strike to defend the miners. Britain was now in a revolutionary situation. For nine days the strike developed and grew in strength and confidence. On the ninth day workers were still coming out. And then the TUC called it off, leaving the miners to fight on alone for six months to ultimate defeat.
It was a classic betrayal of the workers’ interests by trade union bureaucrats. Here was a tremendous opportunity for the CP at least to settle accounts with the reformists and compromisers, if not yet with the bourgeoisie. In fact the CP was hamstrung as a revolutionary organisation, fighting the incumbent leaders, by the involvement of some of those leaders in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee.
The CP raised the slogan “All Power to the TUC General Council” — the TUC General Council that was selling out the strikers! Despite its sincere intentions, it helped the traitors. Even though the CP grew in the aftermath of defeat, the attrition of working-class morale and combativity was tremendous. This was the working class that would be hit soon by the great slump and pushed down further.
Worse was to come. In 1928, reflecting Stalin’s final cataclysmic seizure of power in the USSR and the beginning of forced industrialisation and collectivisation, the Communist International proclaimed that the world had entered the “Third Period”. The first period after the World War had seen working-class upsurge and defeat; the second, capitalist consolidation. The Third Period was the period of revolution everywhere.
Everything that happened could be and was construed according to that scenario. A religious pogrom in Palestine could be transmuted into an anti-imperialist struggle; fascists in Germany seen as misguided fighters against the Versailles Treaty; nationalist leaders togged out as incipient communists — everything in fact which a later generation would come to know as post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” was pioneered here.
The dogma explained delays in the world revolution in terms of the Social Democrats, and concluded that they were the main enemy, the “Social Fascists”, to be smashed at all costs. It made sense to ally with Hitler’s Nazis in Germany against the Social Democrats, “the murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg”, and suicidally, the German Communist Party did that.
In Britain the Third Period made the CP regard the left-wing movement of disaffiliated Labour Parties as a roadblock to CP growth rather than a bridge to the Labour Party, and the trade-union Minority Movement as a buttress of the bureaucrats rather than the agency for their eventual removal. The National Left-Wing Movement in the Labour Party was liquidated, the Minority Movement turned into an attempt to create new trade unions. It was a great self-liquidation by the Communist Party. A couple of tiny “red” trade unions, among miners in East Fife and clothing workers in East London and Leeds, were the only result.
This marked the end of any large-scale challenge to the dominance of Labourism. When the CP pulled out of its bureaucratic ultra-left craze in the mid-1930s, it was only a tool of Russian foreign policy, a source of totalitarian pollution in the labour movement and politically a force pulling Labour to the right — into a “popular front” with Liberals and “progressive” Tories. The Trotskyist groups which tried to maintain the politics and perspectives of original communism were tiny and of no account in mass working-class politics.
Thus a history which might have gone differently actually saw the consolidation of a reformist labour movement. The trade union bureaucracy was strengthened by the defeat of the General Strike and then by the dampening of spirits in the great depression. Trade union leaders became more and more enmeshed in collaboration with the state.
• From “The Labour Party in perspective”, Workers’ Liberty No 28, February 1996