The Third International After Lenin, a critique of Comintern policy which Leon Trotsky wrote in exile in Alma Alta in 1928, was addressed to the Sixth Congress of the Communist International.
In it he tells in outline the story of the share of the Communist International and the British Communist Party which obeyed the International’s instructions in the responsibility for the defeat of the British general strike. It is a model of how Marxists analyse a political situation.
The role of the trade union leaders in bringing working class defeat when victory was possible has many direct parallels with what would happen again half a century later during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. The defeat in 1926 shaped the subsequent epoch of British working class history. So too the defeat of 1984-5, in conditions when the working class and the labour movement could have defeated the Thatcher Tories as it had a decade earlier, defeated the Heath Tories, has shaped British working class history since.
Serious students who orient both to the class struggle now and to the decisive class struggles of the future, will learn the lessons of both 1926 and 1984-5 and make them part of their work to revive the working class movement.
The weaknesses of the English Communist Party gave birth at that time to the necessity of replacing it as quickly as possible with a more imposing factor. Precisely then was born the false estimate of the tendencies in English trade unionism. [Communist International leader] Zinoviev [then an ally of Stalin] gave us to understand that he counted upon the revolution finding an entrance, not through the narrow gateway of the British Communist Party, but through the broad portals of the trade unions. The struggle to win the masses organised in the trade unions through the communist party was replaced by the hope for the swiftest possible utilisation of the ready-made apparatus of the trade unions for the purposes of the revolution. Out of this false position sprang the later policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee” which dealt a blow to the Soviet Union, as well as to the English working class; a blow surpassed only by the defeat in China.
In the Lessons of October, written as early as the summer of 1924, the idea of an accelerated road — accelerated through friendship with Purcell [British trade union leader] and AJ Cook, as the further development of this idea showed — is refuted as follows:
“Without the party, independently of the party, skipping over the party, through a substitute for the party, the proletarian revolution can never triumph. That is the principal lesson of the last decade. To be sure, the English trade unions can become a powerful lever of the proletarian revolution. They can, for example, under certain conditions and for a certain period, even replace the workers’ Soviets. But they cannot play such a role without the communist party and certainly not against it, but only provided that communist influence in the trade unions becomes decisive. We have paid too dearly for this conclusion as to the role and significance of the party for the proletarian revolution to renounce it so lightly or even to have it weakened.“
The same problem is posed on a wider scale in my book Whither England? (1924, also known as Where is Britain Going?) This book, from beginning to end, is devoted to proving the idea that the English revolution, too, cannot avoid the portals of communism and that with a correct, courageous, and intransigent policy which steers clear of any illusions with regard to detours, the English Communist Party can grow by leaps and bounds and mature so as to be equal in the course of a few years to the tasks before it.
The left illusions of 1924 rose thanks to the right leaven. In order to conceal the significance of the mistakes and defeats of 1923 from others as well as from oneself, the process of the swing to the Right that was taking place in the proletariat had to be denied and revolutionary processes within the other classes optimistically exaggerated. That was the beginning of the down-sliding from the proletarian line to the centrist, that is, to the petty bourgeois line which, in the course of the increasing stabilisation, was to liberate itself from its ultra-left shell and reveal itself as a crude collaborationist line in the USSR, in China, in England, in Germany, and everywhere else...
The point of departure of the Anglo-Russian Committee, as we have already seen, was the impatient urge to leap over the young and too slowly developing communist party. This invested the entire experience with a false character even prior to the general strike.
The Anglo-Russian Committee was looked upon not as an episodic bloc at the tops which would have to be broken and which would inevitably and demonstratively be broken at the very first serious test in order to compromise the General Council. No, not only Stalin, Bukharin, Tomsky, and others, but also Zinoviev saw in it a long lasting “co-partnership”’ an instrument for the systematic revolutionisation of the English working masses, and if not the gate, at least an approach to the gate through which would stride the revolution of the English proletariat. The further it went, the more the Anglo-Russian Committee became transformed from an episodic alliance into an inviolable principle standing above the real class struggle. This became revealed at the time of the general strike.
The transition of the mass movement into the open revolutionary stage threw back into the camp of the bourgeois reaction those liberal labour politicians who had become somewhat left. They betrayed the general strike openly and deliberately; after which they undermined and betrayed the miners’ strike.
The possibility of betrayal is always contained in reformism. But this does not mean to say that reformism and betrayal are one and the same thing at every moment. Not quite. Temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they take a step forward. But to maintain a bloc with them when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal.
The general strike had the task of exerting a united pressure upon the employers and the state with the power of the five million workers [organised in trade unions], for the question of the coal mining industry had become the most important question of state policy. Thanks to the betrayal of the leadership, the strike was broken in its first stage. It was a great illusion to continue in the belief that an isolated economic strike of the mine workers would alone achieve what the general strike did not achieve. That is precisely where the power of the General Council [of the TUC] lay. It aimed with cold calculation at the defeat of the mine workers, as a result of which considerable sections of the workers would be convinced of the “correctness” and the “reasonableness” of the Judas directives of the General Council.
The maintenance of the amicable bloc with the General Council, and the simultaneous support of the protracted and isolated economic strike of the mine workers, which the General Council came out against, seemed, as it were, to be calculated beforehand to allow the leaders of the trade unions to emerge from this heaviest test with the least possible losses.
The role of the Russian trade unions here, from the revolutionary standpoint, turned out to be very disadvantageous and positively pitiable. Certainly, support of an economic strike, even an isolated one, was absolutely necessary. There can be no two opinions on that among revolutionists. But this support should have borne not only a financial but also a revolutionary-political character.
The All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions should have declared openly to the English mine workers’ union and the whole English working class that the mine workers’ strike could seriously count upon success only if by its stubornness, its tenacity, and its scope, it could prepare the way for a new outbreak of the general strike. That could have been achieved only by an open and direct struggle against the General Council, the agency of the government and the mine owners. The struggle to convert the economic strike into a political strike should have signified, therefore, a furious political and organisational war against the General Council. The first step to such a war had to be the break with the Anglo-Russian Committee. which had become a reactionary obstacle, a chain on the feet of the working class.
No revolutionist who weighs his words will contend that a victory would have been guaranteed by proceeding along this line. But a victory was possible only on this road. A defeat on this road was a defeat on a road that could lead later to victory. Such a defeat educates, that is, strengthens the revolutionary ideas in the working class. In the meantime, mere financial support of the lingering and hopeless trade union strike (trade union strike in its methods; revolutionary-political, in its aims), only meant grist to the mill of the General Council, which was waiting calmly until the strike collapsed from starvation and thereby proved its own “correctness.” Of course, the General Council could not easily bide its time for several months in the role of an open strike-breaker. It was precisely during this very critical period that the General Council required the Anglo-Russian Committee as its political screen from the masses. Thus, the questions of the mortal class struggle between English capital and the proletariat, between the General Council and the mine workers, were transformed, as it were, into questions of a friendly discussion between allies in the same bloc, the English General Council and the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions, on the subject of which of the two roads was better at that moment: the road of an agreement, or the road of an isolated economic struggle. The inevitable outcome of the strike led to the agreement, that is, tragically settled the friendly “discussion” in favour of the General Council.
From beginning to end, the entire policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee, because of its false line, provided only aid to the General Council. Even the fact that the strike was long sustained financially by the great self-sacrifice on the part of the Russian working class, did not serve the mine workers or the English Communist Party, but the self-same General Council. As the upshot of the greatest revolutionary movement in England since the days of Chartism, the English Communist Party has hardly grown while the General Council sits in the saddle even more firmly than before the general strike.
Such are the results of this unique “strategical manoeuvre.”
The obstinacy evinced in retaining the bloc with the General Council, which led to downright servility, was explained away by the ever recurring reference to the very same “stabilisation.” If there is a setback in the development of the revolution, then, you see, one is forced to cling to [trade union leader] Purcell. This argument, which appeared very profound to a Soviet functionary or to a [routinist] trade unionist is in reality a perfect example of blind empiricism, adulterated by scholasticism at that.
What was the significance of “stabilisation” in relation to English economy and politics, especially in the years 1926-1927? Did it signify the development of the productive forces? The improvement of the economic situation? Better hopes for the future? Not at all. The whole so-called stabilisation of English capitalism is maintained only upon the conservative forces of the old labour organisations with all their currents and shadings in the face of the weakness and irresolutely of the English Communist Party. On the field of the economic and social relations of England, the revolution has already fully matured. The question stands purely politically. The basic props of the stabilisation are the heads of the Labour Party and the trade unions, which, in England, constitute a single unit but which operate through a division of labour.
Given such a condition of the working masses as was revealed by the general strike, the highest post in the mechanism of capitalist stabilisation is no longer occupied by [Labour Party leaders] MacDonald and Thomas, but by [trade union leaders] Pugh, Purcell, Cook, and Co. They do the work and Thomas adds the finishing touches. Without Purcell, Thomas would be left hanging in mid-air and along with Thomas also [Tory leader] Baldwin. The chief brake upon the English revolution is the false, diplomatic masquerade “Leftism” of Purcell which fraternises sometimes in rotation, sometimes simultaneously with [British] churchmen and [Russian] Bolsheviks and which is always ready not only for retreats but also for betrayal. Stabilisation is Purcellism.
From this we see what depths of theoretical absurdity and blind opportunism are expressed in the reference to the existence of “stabilisation” in order to justify the political bloc with Purcell. Yet, precisely in order to shatter the “stabilisation,” Purcellism had first to be destroyed. In such a situation, even a shadow of [Communist] solidarity with the [TUC] General Council was the greatest crime and infamy against the working masses.
Even the most correct strategy cannot, by itself, always lead to victory. The correctness of a strategical plan is verified by whether it follows the line of the actual development of class forces and whether it estimates the elements of this development realistically. The gravest and most disgraceful defeat which has the most fatal consequences for the movement is the typically Menshevist defeat, due to a false estimate of the classes, an underestimation of the revolutionary factors, and an idealisation of the enemy forces. Such were our defeats in China and in England.