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Communists and the Labour Party: Expelling the Left Wing – The lessons of the 1920s

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In a period when the leadership of the Labour Party is once again setting out on its well trodden course of “cleansing” the Labour Party of “Marxists and Trotskyists”  it is highly appropriate to look at the very first witch-hunt in the Party’s history. During the 1920’s the right wing set out to drive the Communists from the Party.

Not only were the Communist members of the Party excluded, but also whole constituency labour parties which refused to carry out these decisions, leading to the formation of a body which finally constituted itself as the “National Left Wing Movement”  in September 1926. 

An analysis of this period is important for the lessons that can be learnt for today, when militants face a Labour leadership determined to rid itself of its left wing. But it is also important because the victory over the left in the 1920’s marked a watershed in the development of the Labour Party through the consolidation of the leadership’s bureaucratic stranglehold over the Party. The bans, proscriptions, expulsions and witch-hunts which have punctured the history of the Labour Party right down to the present indeed flow from the “principles” laid down in the struggles with the Communists. 

A further reason for examining this period of the Labour Party’s history is that previous attempts by “Trotskyists”, most notably Brian Pearce’s “The Communist Party and the Labour Left” (Essays in History of Communism in Britain – Woodhouse and Pearce), have been absolutely uncritical of the Communist Party’s tactics in pursuing the fight up to the ultra-left turn of 1928. The reason is not hard to find in the case of Pearce. Writing in 1957 for the Socialist Labour League, which had a rotten history of adaption to left reformists such as Bevan and the Braddocks in the Labour Party via “Socialist Outlook” and later “Tribune”, Pearce could only view the National Left Wing through the SLL’s opportunists spectacles. But there have been no serious attempts to challenge Pearce’s account. For far too long the history of the National Left Wing Movement has been mythologised by those who consider themselves Trotskyists as a means of legitimising their own particular opportunist practices inside the Labour Party.  

The affiliation question
The whole question of the Communist Party’s affiliation to, and exclusion from, the Labour Party arose out of the peculiar structure and history of that Party. Formed as the Labour Representation Committee only in 1900 the Party was in fact a federation of the affiliated trade unions and socialist groupings. By 1920 when the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed its major component in terms of membership, the British Socialist Party (BSP), was in fact an affiliated group in the Labour Party. The formation of the Communist Party from a fusion of the BSP and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation (WSF), (the latter two being both outside and hostile to joining the Labour Party), posed quite sharply the question of affiliation to the Labour Party. 

The question was finally settled largely through the intervention and influence of the Communist International and in particular of Lenin. Lenin’s position embodied in “Left Wing Communism” and adopted in resolution form at the Second Congress argued for the Communist Party to affiliate to the Labour Party, which had only been opened for membership in 1917, had been growing apace since the First World War. The war had produced an elemental upheaval in the life of the working class and shaken it out of the old ways and habits which had tied it to liberalism. Where as in 1920 Labour candidates received only half a million votes by 1918 the total stood at two and a quarter million. By 1924 this figure was to rise to nearly five and a half million – one third of the total votes. 

While this dramatic growth of the reformist party would not alone have justified a tactic of affiliation, it was combined with an exceptional structure which allowed revolutionaries virtual freedom of action. A structure which, as Lenin pointed out, “…allows the British Socialist Party to remain in its ranks, allows it to have its own organ of the press in which members of this very Labour Party can free only and openly declare that the leaders of the Party are Social Traitors… this is a very peculiar situation in which a Party which unites an enormous mass of workers, and which is a political party, is nevertheless obliged to allow its members complete liberty,” (Speech to Second Congress of CI). This did not mean for a moment however that the Comintern had revised its political characterisation of this Party of the Second International. In taking to task William McLaine and the BSP, Lenin put forward the classic definition of the British Labour Party, “…the Labour Party is not a political workers’ party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that, who lead it in the spirit of the bourgeoisie and with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns, they systematically deceive the workers. (Speech to Second Congress) 

Neither did it mean that the Comintern was opposed to the existence of an independent revolutionary communist party or that it was advocating that the young CP could succeed in transforming the Labour Party into the party that the working class needed. The Comintern was advancing a tactic to take the fight against Labourism into the heart of the party at a time when the party’s bureaucratic structures had not yet galled and when the real face of Labourism was not yet apparent to millions of workers.  Affiliation was not a tactic simply aimed at ‘getting inside’ the Labour Party. Neither should be Comintern’s advice be taken to mean that revolutionaries should attempt to enter and remain in the Labour Party at any cost and for all time. The affiliation tactic was advanced as a means of exposing the reformists in political battle inside their party as part of the struggle to build a mass working class cadre around the small nucleus of the British Communist Party. 

It was armed with this analysis and tactic that the CPGB applied for membership of the Labour Party in August 1920. Although formal affiliation was refused by the Labour NEC, in practice the bulk of Communist Party members were already openly members of the Labour Party, either by virtue of having always being so via the BSP or through being delegated to Labour Party bodies and conferences through their affiliated trade unions. While the decision was effectively endorsed at the 1921 Labour Party conference by 4,115,000 to 224,000 the Executive was initially unwilling to risk any offensive action against the CP. 

The Right Wing offensive
The right wing offensive was launched in 1922 after the defeats of the working class following “Black Friday”. At the Edinburgh conference of that year the Executive moved that delegates from affiliated bodies must not come from organisations which stood candidates for parliament or local authorities unless endorsed by the Labour Party. Frank Hodges of the Miners Federation of Great Britain, summed up the Executives “case” against the Communists when he described them as , “the international slaves of Moscow –  taking orders from the Asiatic mind”. 

Such fulminations however were insufficient to stop the “yellow peril” from spreading in the constituencies. In the 1922 general election Shapurji Saklatvala, a Communist, was elected as the official Labour member for North Battersea, while Walton Newbold won Motherwell as a Communist candidate with local Labour Party support. At the 1923 Labour Party conference the Executive was forced to retreat on banning CP members as delegates. This reflected the growing confidence of the working class after the defeats of 1921. And although the call for CP affiliation was again defeated by 2,880,000 to 366,000 this did not reflect the true support for the Communists. The miners and the Railmen had cast their 1.1 million bloc votes only by the narrowest of majorities – itself a tribute to the work of the Red International of Labour Unions (precursor to the Minority Movement) in these unions. 

The pressure of Labourism
Such successes had its dangers for a young and small CP. The victory for the Labour Party in 1923, (it became the second largest Party in Parliament and formed the first Labour Government) led to what Radek described as a “reformist epidemic”  in the British Party. “Workers’ Weekly” the CP’s newspaper, hailed it as a “victory for the working class” and urged the Labour Party to form a “workers’ Government”. Palme Dutt, normally an incurable leftist, warned workers, “A Labour Government in a minority cannot be expected to show easy successful action or immediate results straight away. That must be recognised and there will be understanding on the part of the workers”. (Quoted in LJ MacFarlane “The British CP” p104). 

This right wing lurch in the application of the united front tactic, which undoubtedly reflected the growing pressure of Labourism on the British Party, was quickly corrected by the Communist International in a conference with representatives of the British Party in Moscow in February 1924. However the Communist International itself at this time was beginning to succumb to opportunist vaccilation under the leadership of Zinoviev. The formation of the Anglo-Russian Committee (early 1925), reflecting the leftward move of the British Trade unions, led to Zinoviev, already searching for short cuts to build a “mass Communist Party” in Britain, to declare, “We do not know exactly when the communist mass party of England will come, whether only through the Stewart-McManus door (both leading CPGB figures) or through some other door” (Zinoviev Speech to 5th Congress of CI) 

Zinoviev was openly courting other roads to a mass party in this period. Impatient with the small CPGB, his potential “other doors” included not only the left in the trade unions – Purcell, Swales, Hicks and Cook – but also the left in the Labour Party itself – for example Kirkwood, Maxton and Lansbury. 

We have dealt elsewhere with how the growing strength of the Stalin/Bukharin faction of the CPSU led to the Anglo-Russian Committee developing into a bloc with the British trade union leaders – a factor which disarmed the young British Communist Party and Minority Movement in the build up to the General Strike (see Marxism and the Trade Unions pamphlet). This tendency was urgently warned against by Trotsky in his writings on Britain. Not surprisingly this policy was to have similar disastrous results on the Party’s work in the Labour Party. 

No Communist Party criticisms of the Lefts
In March 1925 the “Sunday Worker”  was launched at the initiative of the CP and largely financed by it. However the Sunday Worker was to be a non-party paper, indeed it set itself the task of becoming, ‘…an organ of the left wing of the Labour movement … we not only express the left wing but aid it to consolidate itself.” (Sunday Worker No.1 15.3.1925) While participation in such a venture would not have been of itself opportunist, had the CP (which had its own independent press as well) put clearly its own positions and its differences and criticisms of the “lefts”. This was not to be the case. 

In the very first issue for instance an unsigned and presumably editorial article on the upcoming Independent Labour Party (ILP) Conference declared the ILP to be, “a really magnificent machine…possesses some of the finest socialist raw material to be found. The ILP has a noble past. The tradition of Keir Hardie is not dead … provided the left fights to keep its end up the ILP might return to the real van of the workers movement.” (Sunday Worker No.1) Leaving aside the fact that this “magnificient machine”  was under the control of the likes of Ramsey MacDonald and Snowden and was being used to hound the Communists, the implication that a return to the politics of Keir Hardie would provide a real leadership for the working class was astounding. Keir Hardie had always been at paints to point out that, “The propaganda of class hatred is not one which can ever take root in this country”, after the “Marxist”  Social Democratic SDF had left Labour Representation Committee, and again in 1904, “That socialism is revolutionary is not in dispute, but that is can only be won by a violent outbreak is no sense true. I can imagine one reform after another being won until the end socialism itself causes no more excitement than did the extinction of landlordism in Ireland a year ago”. This was the “noble tradition” that the CP was suggesting the ILP could be rearmed with! 

The Sunday Worker provided a platform for the “Left Wing”. Long articles by Cook, Purcell, Swales on International Trade Union Unity and by Ellen Wilkinson MP, Wheatley, Lansbury etc, were published virtually without criticism from the CP. Indeed the columns were declared open to anyone, “who is on the side of the workers in the class struggle and is prepared to stay on that side to the bitter end.” (Sunday Worker No. 1) 

The Sunday Workers sows illusions
What the CP failed to warn the working class, both in the Sunday Worker, its own press and in the press of the Minority Movement, was that these ‘Left’ leaders had to be watch precisely because they would not necessarily stay on the side of the workers to the “bitter end”. The Sunday Worker in fact sowed illusions in these leaders instead of mobilising the rank and file militants of the Left Wing to prepare to rely on their own strength. The rank and file was to pay clearly for this when these same leaders sold out the General Strike. 

The real mettle of the CP’s “Left Wing” allies in the Labour Party and Trade Unions was in fact apparent well before the General Strike. At the Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party in 1925 the Executive again went on the offensive. The CP’s new found confidence based on a serious of articles in Sunday Worker by leading ‘Lefts’ in favour of CP affiliation was quickly dashed. As the Executive proposals to declare members of the CP ineligible to remain members of a local Labour Party and the reimposition of a ban on Communist delegates was pushed through the conference the ‘Lefts’ remained silent. The ILP stars of the Sunday Worker were struck dumb, as were nearly all the ‘Left’ trade union leaders. This debacle led even the CP to break its silence on the Left Wing’s weakness. Harry Pollitt, a leading CP member declared in hurt surprise, “But where was the Left Wing? … Not a single left winger on the E.C. dared to burn his boats and warn the “hero worshippers” where MacDonaldism was leading to.” (Sunday Worker 4.10.25) The ‘Left’ was quick to reply. Lansbury blamed the CP for criticising MacDonald and thus producing “such a reaction in favour of the Executive that even reasonable criticism had no chance. I do not believe the British Labour movement will ever give up its autonomy and allow itself to be instructed as to tactics and policy on internal affairs by any international, Moscow or Amsterdam” (Sunday Worker 4.10.25) Frank Horrabin for the Plebs League called on the Communists to disband the Communist Party and join the Labour Party so as to change it from within.  

Others drew a different conclusion from the Liverpool events. The Sunday Worker had to reply Editorially to a number of letters it had received calling for a new Socialist Party to be formed. This was not the conclusion of the Sunday Worker (i.e. the CP). According to the Sunday Worker the problem was that the Left, “have no come to a working agreement on a few big points … Once that agreement has been reached and a left wing bloc is formed the Liberals can be shifted … our duty to the workers demands that we must renew our efforts to transform the Labour Party into a Labour Party” (Sunday Worker 11.10.1925) 

Tactic of affiliation distorted
Already in 1925 it is possible to see the beginning of the distortion of the tactic of affiliation as worked out by the Second Congress under Lenin’s guidance. Lenin had been quite clear that the condition for the tactic was that the Labour Party allowed its members “complete liberty”. The resolutions passed by the Executive, with the acquiescence of the ‘Left’, laid the basis for the ending of that liberty. The question was, could they carry out the expulsions and could the rank and file of the Labour Party be rallied to defeat them? Lenin was quite clear that such a tactic was unlikely to last for long, given the nature and tactics of the reformist leaders. While making every effort to fight expulsion, the struggle in itself would be important in exposing the reformist leaders as the splitters, “Let Messrs Thomas and the other social-traitors whom you call social-traitors, expel you. This will have an excellent effect upon the mass of the British workers.” Indeed, “If the British Communist Party starts out by acting in a revolutionary manner in the Labour Party and if Messrs Henderson are obliged to expel this party, it will be a great victory for the Communist and Labour Movement in England.” (Speech to Second Congress of CI). The task was to build a revolutionary Communist Party not to “transform the Labour Party into a Labour Party” a formulation designed not to scare off the ‘Lefts’. 

A debate on these questions was already taking place within the Communist Party before the Liverpool conference. It was left to the sectarian Palme Dutt, who was to come into his own during the ultra-left third period of the Comintern, to raise some of the problems of the CPGB’s tactics in the Labour Party. Dutt’s major criticism was that the Communist Party was no putting itself forward as sufficiently as an independent leadership of the working class, and that consequently it was in danger of sinking into the left wing of the Labour Party. Jumping from “objective conditions” of the crisis of British imperialism, and impossibility of a reformist party being able to fulfil even the minimal demands of the workers, Dutt declares the Labour Party to have “proved itself a broken instrument” to be in a process of “decomposition”. Indeed the “epitaph of the Labour Party as the leader of the workers was written in the election campaign” (“The British Working Class after the Election” Communist International No.8 1925). 

This wishful thinking of an ultra-left, the Labour Party vote as Dutt himself pointed out had gone up by a million votes in 1924, led Dutt to virtually ignore the left wing rank and file in the Labour Party as an area of struggle. But it also led him to point to many of the CPGB’s crucial weaknesses, “The CP must conduct an increasing ideological warfare with the left, exposing from the outset every expression that betrays confusion ambiguity…opposition to actual struggle and practical subjection to the right wing”. (CI No. 8) 

It is revealing that in the replies to Dutt, from Martynov (CI no.8) and Murphy (CI No.9) both of them attack this last point vehemently. Murphy after dismissing Dutt’s fantasies about a ‘decomposing’ Labour Party says of the left in the Labour Party, “Shall we help these masses to effectively challenge the leadership (of the LP) which they resent? Or shall we vigorously attack the prominent leaders who are typical of the movement, drive them further from us in the hope of a direct appeal to the rank and file to join us proving successful… There appears to me only one course to take and that is the first. If we vigorously attack the “left wing leaders” we attack the mass with a similar outlook and drive them away from the Party.” (How a mass CP will come in Britain CI No.9 1925) Here is the method of the Anglo-Russian Committee applied to the Labour Party! 

Murphy does however make one self-criticism which heralded the impending attempt of the CP to build the National Left Wing Movement. “[We have] talked to the Clyde Group (Maxton et al) in Parliament etc, wrote encouragingly about them and so on, but done nothing to bring together those rank and file forces of the Labour Party which have supported the issues we have raised” (Murphy CI No.9) 

Sure enough at the end of 1925 a conference was called of local Labour Parties unwilling to implement the Liberpool decisions in London – the stronghold of the CP in the Labour Party. A further conference representing 53 borough and division Labour Parties in Greater London in January 1926 adopted a programme and elected a London committee. A similar conference was held in Manchester. In Rhondda the borough Labour Party voted 15,000 to 4,000 to accept affiliation of the local Communist Party. 

The Left Wing was organised but only under the blows of a witch-hunt. The defeat of the General Strike in March 1926 fortified the Labour leadership to carry on its attack. By the Margate Labour Party conference (October 1926) 14 constituency organisations had been expelled for refusing to operate the ban on Communists. When the first National Left Wing Movement conference was convened in September 1926, London alone reported the disaffiliation of Battersea, Bethnal Green, Chelsea, Westminster, Holborn, East Lewisham and West Ham. Fifty two borough and local Labour Parties or Trades and Labour Councils were represented “officially” and 40 minority Left Wing groups were represented. By 1927 the Second Conference represented 54 local Labour Parties representing 150,000 members, the bulk from disaffiliated parties. The NC reported 90 Left Wing groups in existence and five large district conferences held. 

The tactic adopted was to keep the disaffiliated parties in existence – London outlined the methods used to the first conference, “Several of the disaffiliated parties have initiated big campaigns to increase their membership with magnificent results… if in particular wards reactionaries may predominate and capture positions of the machinery they must not be allowed an undisputed field. (The local party) must carry on intensive propaganda and put forward bold local policies, publicly inviting any “scab”  party that may have been established by the reactionaries to form a united front with it on a real socialist programme. When the “scab”  party refuses – as it surely will – the workers can judge of its value to themselves.” (The Left Wing and Its Programme 1925) 

However such a tactic could not last forever. A large number of parties had been effectively expelled –  along with the bulk of the Communists. The right in the Trade Unions had been strengthened after the defeat of the General Strike, a defeat which they had engineered, and they were now launching a vicious witch-hunt in the unions against the Minority Movement. 

At the time that the affiliation tactic had been initiated members of the CP had liberty with the Party to argue for the Party’s programme and strategy. These conditions no longer existed. In these circumstances a revolutionary Communist Party would have seized the opportunity to caste the blame for the split in the Labour Party where it lay – with the Labour leaders and immediately proceeded to fight to win the Left Wing and its rank and file to a mass Communist Party affiliated to the Third International. This was the tactic that the revolutionary Comintern had operated in 1920 when they won the mass base of the USPD in Germany to form the United Communist Party. 

But the British CP was no longer led by a revolutionary International. Stalin and Bukharin were now firmly in control and still pursuing their bloc with the British ‘left’  trade union leaders, despite their role in the General Strike. This was only to be broken by the British trade union leaders themselves in September 1927. To split from the Labour Party and the ‘Left’  leaders who would surely denounce such a step was unthinkable. And so the National Left Wing Movement continued to exist, its dynamic central force being the Communist Party, as neither a political Party nor really a united front. 

Its programme was largely the CP’s action programme for the Labour Party – including opposition to capitalist war credits, in favour of assistance to Workers Governments against imperialist aggression, for the dismantling of the British Empire, for the nationalisation of all basic industries under workers control without compensation, for a workers defence corps etc. Yet this “revolutionary” programme had nothing to say on the question of Government – above all on a Labour Government. Formally the movement was committed by resolution to the CP’s line, “That this conference considers that future Labour Prime Ministers and cabinets should be elected and controlled by the Labour Party Executive Committee.” An Executive Committee which by 1928 had disaffiliated 26 Labour Parties (16 in London) and 10 women’s sections for opposing bans and proscriptions! 

The increasing confusion evident in the CP as to what it was doing with the National Left Wing Movement was “solved” by the sudden lurch to the left in the Comintern in 1928. By the end of 1928 the supporters of the “new line”  in the CPGB were in full cry against the danger from the right as represented in the “mistakes” of the old Central Committee in relation to the Labour Party. The supporters of the new line, Dutt, Pollitt etc couldn’t wait to rid themselves of the National Left Wing Movement. On the 3rd March 1929 the National Committee of the Left Wing dissolved itself without consulting the membership, the decision being announced in the Sunday Worker. Muted appeals through the columns of the Sunday Worker from the Birmingham Left Wing and Bethnal Green for a conference to be called fell of deaf ears. In November 1929 the Sunday Worker itself was shut down. 

For all its opportunist errors the National Left Wing Movement holds important lessons for the present struggle inside the Labour Party. It rallied the largest number of forces against the class collaborationist leadership of the Labour Party yet seen, and demonstrated the chronic weakness of the ‘Left’ leaders when it came to really challenging the right wing. For Communists it showed both the potential of winning reformist workers from the Labour Party through a joint struggle and the dangers of tying such a movement to the coat tails of the lefts in the hope of “transforming” the Labour Party. 

However the most important lesson for modern revolutionaries is that the precondition of tactical flexibility in pursuit of a united front with reformist workers is absolute programmatic clarity and independence of part of the revolutionaries in the Labour Party. We fetishise no particular tactical avenue to reach workers who look to the Labour Party. As long as the Labour leaders hold that their party “represents” the whole working class we demand the right of all working class organisations to affiliate to the party and fight to exercise that right and defend others that do so. To that extent the affiliation struggles of the CPGB still have enormous relevance even through the conditions inside the Labour Party have changed considerably from those that prevailed in the 1920’s. But even in the fight for affiliation the CPGB was at all times presented with the need to raise its independent party banner and seek to recruit to it, while finding the means of organising the supporters of the CP who remained in the party as a revolutionary tendency fight the reformist leaders in their own party. The squandered opportunities of the CPGB flow not simply from the Party’s tactical inflexibility or sectarianism as latter Trotskyist entrists insist, but rather from the programmatic weaknesses of the CPGB during each of its series of turns. It was the programmatic opportunism of the CPGB towards the Labour Lefts, compounded in its mirror reflection in the third period, that sealed the isolation of the CPGB from the mass of reformist workers by the early 1930’s.