The British Communist Party and the Labour Left 1925-1929
Brian Pearce was a very important member of the British Communist Party historians’ group, along with Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, E.P. Thompson and many others. Most of this group broke with the Communist Party after the upheavals of 1956-57.
In Brian Pearce’s case, he joined up with the intellectual projects of Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist group, subsequently the Socialist Labour League. He was a writer for the very important magazine, Labour Review (edited by another former Communist Party dissident, who became a Trotskyist, John Daniels). Pearce often wrote under the pseudonym Joseph Redman, and his first essays appeared when the dissidents were still fighting it out in the Communist Party.
When Healy’s organisation started a new agitational organ, The Newsletter, in 1957, edited by another Communist Party dissident who joined the Trotskyists, the former Daily Worker journalist who had witnessed and written movingly about the workers’ uprising in Hungary and its suppression by the Stalinist tanks. Pearce wrote a column for the Newsletter, titled Constant Reader.
As a young dissident in the Stalinist orbit in Australia, I found the modestly printed weekly Newsletter interesting and exciting. Pearce’s Constant Reader articles were notable for their coverage of books about politics and culture, covered from a broad, subtle, independent Marxist point of view.
Pearce added a lot to that small journal. Pearce’s major essays reassessing the history of the British Communist Party and Stalinism have no peer in the English-speaking world and it’s surprising all the new material out of the Soviet archives that has appeared in the past 15 years generally confirms Pearce’s insights in his major essays on the history of British Communism and Stalinism.
Pearce writes both as a careful historian and an angry former insider in the British Communist movement who witnessed the impact of Stalinism at close hand. He maintains, however, a careful, almost generous objectivity in his essays.
They are informed by the general Trotskyist critique of Stalinism, but they are careful and concrete. By way of contrast, Pearce’s contemporary, Robert Black (Robin Blick) who also writes about British Stalinism from a broadly Trotskyist point of view, is much cruder and more formulaic.
It’s not absolutely clear when Pearce moved out of the orbit of Gerry Healy’s organisations. He wasn’t around when I was in its orbit in the middle and late 1970s. He went on to become a very important translator of books about revolutionary politics, and his translations are scrupulous and fluent. He is clearly some considerable linguist.
Pearce was unusual in the Trotskyist movement, particularly in Healy’s organisation, for a certain stubborn, intelligent heterodoxy. For instance, he argued publicly in a trenchant way against the traditional Trotskyist view of World War II.
In my modest pantheon, Pearce’s important work about the history of British Communism is deservedly up there with two other major figures, E.P. Thompson’s work on the formation of the British working class, and Christopher Hill’s work on all aspects of the British Revolution of the 17th century.
Pearce’s work deserves careful study for its understanding of the history of Stalinism and Communism in Britain, and this essay is extremely relevant to the ongoing debate about Marxist strategy in labour movements in English-speaking countries.
I still have a few copies of his important book of essays in the old New Park edition for sale in my bookshop.
The British Communist Party and the Labour Left 1925-29
“We were also guilty of provoking misunderstanding in the early days, and we can frankly recognize many further faults from our side.” (R.P. Dutt, at the 24th Congress of the British Communist Party, reported in World News, 21st April, 1956.)“Orders from Moscow is one of the oldest slanders in the Labour movement.” (John Gollan, in World News Discussion Supplement No 1, 26th January, 1957.)
The battle of ideas now in progress in the Communist Party is without any precedent except for that which took place in 1928-29 in connection with what was called the “New Line”. In so far as the current discussion among Communists, ex-Communists and wide sections of the Labour Left is concerned with problems of unity in the Labour Movement, the issues are similar to those around which the earlier discussions raged. It may be that an examination of the earlier controversy and its setting can help to clarify thinking in the present one; and also that the roots of some present-day problems will be discovered to lie in decisions taken in the late 1920s.
Down to the Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party in 1925, Communists could be individual members of the Labour Party. A resolution adopted at that conference excluded them from such membership, beginning the final drive by the right-wing leaders to ban Communists from any kind of participation in Labour Party affairs. A strong minority in the Labour Party indignantly opposed this drive, and numerous local organizations suspended operation of the Liverpool decision so far as they were concerned. Many Labour men saw the action taken against the Communists as part of a general move to the right and were keen to organize resistance.
In December 1925, following meetings in London and Birmingham, a National Left-Wing Conference was held, under the aegis of prominent personalities such as Tom Mann, Councillor Joe Vaughan (formerly Mayor of Bethnal Green, and member of the London Labour Party Executive), Joseph Southall (ILP), Alex Gossip of the furniture workers, and William Paul, the Communist editor of the Sunday Worker, a newspaper of left-wing sympathies, founded earlier in the same year, which claimed a circulation approaching 100,000 (Communist Party membership was then about 5000).
The aim of the Left-Wing Movement was proclaimed to be “not to supersede the Labour Party, but to remould it nearer to the heart’s desire of the rank and file”. It was reported at the Conference that nearly 100 divisional and borough Labour Parties had suspended operation of the Liverpool decision. About 50 of these Labour Parties associated themselves with the National Left-Wing Movement, and Left-Wing groups were organised in many others. When Labour Party headquarters began disaffiliating Labour organisations that refused to operate the ban on Communists, this only intensified the conviction of the members affected that something like the National Left-Wing Movement was needed.
The betrayal of the General Strike in May 1926 gave a further fillip to the new trend, and in September of that year a well-attended conference of the National Left-Wing Movement was held at Poplar, with Joe Vaughan in the chair. The keynote of this meeting was sounded in his call to “cleanse the Labour Party of the agents of capitalism”. Use of the block vote at the Margate Conference of the Labour Party, held shortly afterwards, disappointed left-wingers’ hopes of a reversal of the trend to the right. At this time, however, the Communist-led National Minority Movement in the trade unions commanded the support of nearly a million workers, a quarter of the total trade union membership, and was steadily growing. It was possible to look forward to the winning of both local Labour Parties and trade unions for the left-wing cause of a militant socialist policy in the Labour Party.
As Dr Robert Dunstan, a Communist who enjoyed wide support among Labour Party members in Birmingham, put it, the object of the struggle was to keep to the front those demands which the labour movement had made in the past, such as the capital levy, that the new ex-Liberal elements in the Labour Party leadership were trying to withdraw, and at the same time to advance new demands adapted to the newly unfolding conditions of the working-class fight.
During 1927 the National Left-Wing assumed increasingly organised form, with a leading committee, chairman and secretary.
The Sunday Worker became virtually the organ of the new movement, regularly allotting space to reports of the organising of Left-Wing groups up and down the country, and to expositions of its program. A certain amount of trade union support for the movement’s aims began to be recorded; in May; for example, the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners’ Federation declared for the affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party. In August, the Communist, monthly organ of the Communist Party, observed editorially: During the past 12 months there has been a very marked growth of the organised left-wing opposition within the British Labour Party. From being a movement mainly confined to London, the left-wing has, in less than a year, developed into a powerful national force, which is causing the right-wing Labour bureaucracy more and more anxiety and alarm.
At this time, it was still Communist policy to work for the transformation of the Labour Party rather than for its destruction. Stalin himself had explained, in May 1927, that, in spite of the actual situation of right-wing dominance at the moment, the Labour Party was correctly regarded as a workers’ party if one had in mind: “the type of structure of a workers’ party by virtue of which it should in the future, given certain conditions, become a real class party of the workers, standing in opposition to the bourgeois world.” (Works, IX, 253-254).
When the National Left-Wing Movement held its Second Annual Conference, in September 1927, 54 local Labour Parties and many other groups were represented, aggregating, it was claimed, about 150,000 individual members. There were delegates from the London and Southern Counties Divisional Council of the ILP Guild of Youth, and the North London Federation of the ILP. Prominent miners’ leaders such as A.J. Cook and S.O. Davies associated themselves with the conference, and Will Crick, Chairman of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, was elected Chairman. The proceedings of the Conference, embodied in a pamphlet entitled Towards a Labour Government, had a wide sale.
Membership of the Communist Party at this time stood at about 7500. There were large numbers of Labour Party supporters who were becoming disgusted with the policy of their leaders and who were desirous of changing both policy and leaders in the direction of militancy and a socialist program but who, although friendly to the Communists and in favour of their enjoying equal rights in the Party as individuals, as before 1925, nevertheless did not themselves agree with all of the Communist Party’s ideas (especially on the then much-discussed question of “heavy civil war”) and they did not want to join its ranks. The National Left-Wing Movement served as a bridge between the Communist Party and wide leftward-moving sections of the working-class.
To some leading members of the Communist Party it seemed, however, that it was not so much a bridge as a barrier. The leftward-moving masses would find their way into the ranks of the Communist Party, they felt, if the National Left-Wing were not there to intercept them. Moreover, the prospect of transforming the Labour Party was no longer a real one, they considered, and only harm was done by keeping the idea of it alive: a thoroughgoing readjustment of Communist policy was needed. R.P. Dutt and Harry Pollitt, who held these views, found themselves in a minority in the Party’s leading circles, but during a visit to Moscow in November and December 1927 Pollitt obtained support there, as a result of which the British Communist leadership were obliged to open a fundamental discussion in the columns of the Party press, and, when they attended the Ninth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in February 1928, to take part in a high-level investigation of problems of Communist policy in Britain.
The majority of the Central Committee (notably Albert Inkpin, then General Secretary, J.R. Campbell, Andrew Rothstein and Arthur Horner) held that the central political fact in the British working class movement still remained that the bulk of the workers continued to have faith in the Labour Party. Lenin’s advice given in 1920 had not ceased to be valid; the British Communists must work to push Labour into office and force the right-wingers to expose themselves in practice.
- “In no circumstances must the Communists stand a candidate in an election where this might result in a Tory getting in, for that would discredit them in the eyes of the Labour-minded workers, who saw the defeat of the Tories as all-important.”The history of the Labour Government (of 1924) in the mind of the average worker (pointed out the “majority thesis” published in the Communist Review of February 1928) will contain not only Court dress and Bengal Ordinances, but also slight concessions to the unemployed, Housing Acts, and a treaty with the USSR, which he is convinced stimulated the capitalists to destroy the Labour Government. The unbridled reaction of the Baldwin Government has by way of contrast strengthened the desire of the workers for a Labour Government, and the wide masses of the workers, at the moment, are perhaps more anxious than ever before to return a Labour Government to office. We know that after the Labour Government, the Labour Party secured a million more working class votes.”
The extent to which the efforts of the reactionaries to exclude the Communists had already succeeded should not be exaggerated; Communists could still get on to the controlling bodies of local Labour Parties as trade union delegates. There were twice as many Communists present at the 1927 Trades Union Congress as before, and these combined with a number of non-party Lefts to form a substantial opposition. The May Day demonstration of 1927, under Communist and left-wing leadership, had been, they claimed, the largest and most militant for many years.
The Party in its policy has hitherto drawn a distinction between the rank and file moving forward in opposition to Capitalism and the leadership engaged in utilising the Labour Party machine to impose a capitalist policy on the workers. To come out and oppose Labour candidates that have the backing of the local labour movement adds nothing to the independent role of the Party, but will only have for its result the creation of an unnecessary barrier between the Party and the mass of the workers standing behind the Labour Party, whom it is our duty to win for Communism. It is not a tactic calculated to strengthen the Communist Party against the reformists but, on the contrary, a tactic calculated to strengthen the reformist leaders against the Communist Party.
The way forward lay through strengthening the National Left-Wing Movement and work by the Communists within that movement.
The minority (R.P. Dutt, Harry Pollitt, R.P. Arnot and others) argued that the Labour Party had now become something like the Liberal Party of the 1890s, and the Communists must fight it just as the pioneers of the Labour Party fought the Liberals, not hesitating to put up candidates anywhere and everywhere against it. If the workers did not understand now, they would in the near future. As for the National Left-Wing, it served only to foster illusions, and constituted a barrier between the Communist Party and the workers; there must be “no mediator between the Communist Party and the working class”. The policy of “support plus criticism” in relation to the Labour Party was nothing but “a patchwork of confusion, endeavouring to combine mutually inconsistent policies” and incurring the disadvantages of both. In his Notes of the Month in the Labour Monthly of February,1928, R.P. Dutt affirmed that a “growing body of workers are looking for new political leadership” and “are expecting to find that new political leadership expressed at the election”. Since Lenin gave his advice in 1920 “the whole situation and line of development” had changed fundamentally. The self-exposure of the reformist leaders had reached a stage at which “the revolutionary consciousness of a growing mass-section of the working class has grown strong and ready to advance to a further stage of struggle”, having outgrown the Labour Party.
The Executive Committee of the Communist International decided, in the main, in favour of the views upheld by the minority. The Labour Party, it considered, was already well on the way to becoming a unitary Social-Democratic Party like those on the Continent, and this development must be accepted as irreversible. It no longer made any sense to call for a second Labour Government, with no matter what qualification or condition; the Communist Party’s slogan should now be: “For a revolutionary Workers’ Government”. Candidates should be put up to fight Labour in as many places as possible. The questions of what was to be done about the Left-Wing Movement, and what the Communist Party should advise workers to do in places where there was a Labour candidate and no Communist candidate, were left without any clear-cut answer at this stage.
There now began a period covering nearly two years during which confusion grew within the Communist Party as to the implications of the “New Line” laid down by the Ninth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. W. Gallacher, writing in the Party organ, the Workers’ Life, in March, 1928, declared that the Communists could not give “active support” to Labour candidates other than those who accepted a fighting working-class policy.
At the same time the Party will not advise the workers to abstain from voting for Labour Party candidates where, for one reason or another, a revolutionary workers’ candidate is not in the field.
When a by-election occurred at Linlithgow, first of all a Communist candidate was put up, then he was withdrawn in favour of the Labour candidate, then finally advice was given to the workers to abstain from voting and build up the Communist Party locally so that a Communist candidate could be nominated “next time”. In the Labour Monthly, April 1928, R.P. Dutt quoted Marx on the need to put up workers’ candidates, to fight “petty-bourgeois democracy”, identifying the Labour Party with the latter.
At the same time, the National Left-Wing Movement continued to develop, and under Communist guidance concentrated on struggle in the localities to replace right-wing Labourites by left-wingers as Parliamentary candidates. The reviving militancy of the working class, after the period of depression following the defeat of the General Strike, expressed itself in a new way in the launching of a manifesto for a socialist policy in the Labour Party by the miners’ leader, A. J. Cook, and James Maxton of the ILP, backed by John Wheatley, the most left of the Labour Party’s leaders. Gallacher had taken part in the drafting of the manifesto, and the National Left-Wing Movement officially greeted its appearance and pressed Cook and Maxton to go further and put forward a detailed program along the lines of the Movement’s own; which eventually, within a few months, was done.
The circulation of the Sunday Worker rose steadily and some 10,000 people turned out for the Left-Wing May Day demonstration of 1928. At the annual conference of the Left Wing Movement in September 1928, between 75 and 80 local Labour Party Left-Wing groups were represented and the provincial representation in particular was better than it had been in either of the previous conferences.
This promising development collapsed as a result of intensified attacks by the right wing together with hesitation and something more than that on the part of the Communist Party. In the Workers’ Life an extremely guarded welcome was given to the Cook-Maxton affair from the first, and this rapidly changed into sharp denunciation of it as “cant and fooling”, bound to “fizzle out”. Cook and Maxton (and, by implication the National Left-Wing Movement too, and the Communist Party insofar as it still supported this) were on the wrong track altogether, insisted R.P. Dutt in the Labour Monthly of May 1928, ridiculing “the whole fallacy of the ‘ginger group’ concept in relation to the present formed and hardened Labour Party”. Not only could no good come of such efforts, they represented a positive danger. This was the menace of centrism; the workers were increasingly ready to come into the Communist Party and it was all-important not to encourage any organisations or movements that might “intercept” them. It was not the weakness so much as the potential strength of the left movements of 1928 that alarmed R.P. Dutt and those who thought as he did. (R.P. Arnot, for example, writing in the Communist International in the following year, observed that it was only “the comic-opera futility” of Maxton that saved the day.) When a pre-Congress discussion was opened in the Communist press in October 1928, the advocates of a sharp turn to the left in the name of full implementation of the “New Line” took the bit between their teeth. As Party membership fell and the Party’s isolation grew they became increasingly fervent for their ideas. W. Rust complained that the majority of the Party leadership were “apt to underestimate our own influence and following” and so to be unduly cautious and over-careful to seek allies and proceed in step with other sections of the labour movement. J.T. Murphy affirmed that: “we can no longer do a single thing to strengthen the Labour Party — neither affiliate to it nor pay (the political levy) to it, neither work for it nor vote for it”.
R.P. Dutt, in the Labour Monthly of October, 1928, forecast a process: “by which the centre of gravity of the parties steadily shifts, and the Labour Party comes to build increasingly on the petty bourgeoisie and a small upper section of the workers for its support, while the Communist Party becomes established as the party of the mass of the industrial workers”.
H. Pollitt, in the The Communist, December 1928, wrote: “We describe the Labour Party as a third capitalist party. If that means anything at all, it is that our strength will grow in the degree that we can weaken the Labour Party.”
On the other hand, among contributors to the discussion in the Party press there were some who warned that the workers were only moving to the left, and their disappointment with current Labour Party policy did not necessarily mean immediate enthusiasm for the Communist Party and all it stood for.The municipal election results of November showed an increased vote for Labour along with a fall in the Communist vote; it seemed possible that some former supporters of militant candidates had even transferred their votes to official Labour, out of single-minded determination to “get the Tories out”, together with perplexity and unhappiness regarding the Communist Party’s “New Line”.
The eve of the Communist Party’s Tenth Congress, at Bermondsey, in January 1929, saw downright denunciation of continued Communist support for the National Left-Wing Movement by R.P. Dutt, both in the Communist Review and in his own Labour Monthly. With bitter sarcasm he wrote that the Party leadership were trying to accept the “New Line” in words while continuing to apply the old one in practice.
- “The old line can still go merrily on and find a home in the National Left-Wing. … If it is argued that it is necessary for the Communist Party to organise this tendency as a bridge to itself, then this becomes in the end equivalent to arguing that it is the task of the Communist Party to organise centrism. … For our Party to take the responsibility of direct political leadership within this organisation and sponsorship of its program is to frustrate completely the new line, which is based on repudiation of the Labour Party and of the objective of a Labour Government.”There can be no united front on the basis of a complete political program, for a complete political program implies a party. … Until a comparatively recent period many revolutionary workers still believed in the possibility of a constitutional conquest of the Labour Party and its eventual transformation, as the workers became disillusioned in the reformist leadership, into a revolutionary party by a change of leadership; and at that time any Marxist prediction of the inadequacy of such a perspective, and of the inevitable future disintegration and ultimate liquidation of the Labour Party, and the inescapable necessity of a completely new revolutionary basis, still aroused a sense of shock and outrage. Today, however, the facts are clear to see … The Labour Party is … a machine of reformism. … The decisive fight of the revolutionary workers is and can only be outside that machine and against it. … The conception of a socialistic transformation of the Labour Party needs to be denounced. … With this goes equally the conception of the advance of the workers through a Labour Government, or a left Labour Government. … The path of advance lies through the independent leadership of the revolutionary workers to the working-class conquest of power through a revolutionary Workers’ Government.”
Articles to the same effect, by Dutt’s associates, R.P. Arnot and W. Rust, appeared in the Moscow Communist International. Spokesmen of the majority on the Central Committee, notably J.R. Campbell, ventured to question Dutt’s assumptions, especially the one that great masses of radicalised workers were streaming towards the Communist Party and were only held back from it by the existence of some sort of soft option in the National Left-Wing Movement. “We must have a Left-Wing Movement,” it was urged, “in order to unite with the honest rank-and-file of the Labour Party, who are genuinely dissatisfied with some of the Labour policy, but who are not prepared to come right over to the Communist Party.” The Left-Wing was still growing in many local Labour Parties and should be given every encouragement.
As Party membership fell to 3000, then to 2500, the voice of fanatical sectarianism grew proportionately louder in its counsels. At the Tenth Congress a resolution that Party members should leave the National Left-Wing Movement was passed, against the opposition of the Central Committee, by 55 votes to 52, after vigorous speeches for the resolution by J.T. Murphy, Marjorie Pollitt, Idris Cox and others. Shortly afterwards, the National Committee of the movement, on which Communists predominated, decided by a majority vote to dissolve it and advise supporters to join the Communist Party. When this announcement appeared in the Sunday Worker the paper was bombarded with letters of protest from readers, who were indignant that the decision should have been taken without any consultation of the membership of the Left-Wing Movement. The circulation of the paper, which had been increasing, turned downwards.
The thoughts of the workers generally were now dominated by the approaching General Election. By-elections showed that a big revival in the Labour Party’s fortunes was developing. In this situation, R.P. Dutt proclaimed in the Labour Monthly of February 1929: “Above all, it is necessary to prepare the workers for the inevitable future fight against the Labour Government, whether coming in the next few months or in the near future, as their enemy, even when it appears to make concessions, and to clear the revolutionary perspective of the period in front.
The Communist Party put up 25 candidates in the election in May and advised workers to abstain from voting where no Communists were standing; they should write “Communist” across their ballot papers. As later leaked out, this decision was not reached without considerable dissension, and in the final voting five Central Committee members were for advising the workers to vote Labour in constituencies where there was no Communist standing. (These were Campbell, Rothstein, Inkpin, G. Aitken and F. Bright. The fact was revealed by W. Tapsell to W. Rust, for the latter to use at the YCL Congress to whip up hostility to the Central Committee members concerned. He was officially reprimanded by King Street for “factional activity”.) No non-Communist left-wing candidates were endorsed, although preparations had been in train in certain centres, notably in Birmingham, to nominate such candidates. The election manifesto called for “a Workers’ Socialist Republic federated with the USSR”.
The Communist candidates did very badly, getting only 50,000 votes. This was less than a third of the expected figure; and it was pointed out that this vote, in 25 seats, had to be contrasted with the 41,000 votes obtained in 1924 in only six constituencies. There was a particularly striking drop in the Communist vote in old strongholds like Battersea and North Aberdeen. The Labour Party came in without a majority and was obliged to rely on Liberal support, the right-wing leaders thus possessing a ready-made alibi for betraying the electors’ hopes without losing their sympathy. One commentator suggested that they owed this happy situation to the Communist policy of spoiling ballot papers in the constituencies where no Communist stood — there were 40 cases of Tory or Liberal majorities of less than 2000, where a different line taken by the Communist supporters might have made all the difference.
The effect of the General Election on the Central Committee was to confirm the doubts already entertained by the majority about the “New Line”. The political Bureau was reconstructed in their favour. A gift of £50 was made to the Sunday Worker, with a statement that the paper’s disappearance would be regarded as a “disaster” and a hint that the Communist Congress decision regarding dissolution of the National Left-Wing was “open to reconsideration”.
Very different, however, was the mood prevailing in Moscow at this time. Stalin had recently ousted Bukharin and was waging war on “the Rights”. Instructions conveyed to the British Communist leaders at a meeting in Berlin immediately following the election included: “In our general campaign against the Labour Party we should emphasize that it is a crime equivalent to blacklegging for any worker to belong to the Labour Party.”
The Tenth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, meeting in Moscow in July 1929, under the leadership of Molotov and Manuilsky, Stalin’s representatives, gave final formulation to the doctrine of “social-fascism” (adumbrated by Stalin already in 1924), according to which fascism was in process of being introduced in countries like Germany and Great Britain by their respective Social-Democratic Parties, and it addressed a letter to the British Communist Party calling for a still sharper turn to the left, with removal of any leaders who stood in the way of such a turn. (Ulbricht, supporting the Soviet spokesmen at the Plenum, had called for the appointment to leading positions in the British Party of men “who can be counted on to carry out consistently the line of the Comintern”.) A series of aggregate meetings was held in London, Newcastle and Manchester to discuss the Comintern letter, at which leading local Communists, supporters of the Comintern line, such as Reg Groves, R.W. Robson and Maurice Ferguson called on the membership to “fight the Right danger” on the Central Committee and clear the decks for an all-out struggle against the Labour Party and for workers’ revolution and a Soviet Britain. The Congress of the Young Communist League also joined in this move, led by W. Rust. King Street’s attempts to escape criticism by scare cries of “fraction work” were ridiculed.
The columns of the Communist International and International Press Correspondence carried articles by the leading critics of the British Party, publicizing the “revolt of the membership”. On the insistence of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, conveyed by its representative in Britain, D. Petrovsky (A.J. Bennett), three members of the Political Bureau were removed from office (Albert Inkpin, Andrew Rothstein and J.R. Wilson) and Inkpin was replaced by Harry Pollitt as General Secretary (August 1929). A special National Congress was summoned for November, to confirm these changes and draw appropriate conclusions from them, although the previous Congress had taken place so recently as January.
By now the sales of the Workers’ Life as well as those of the Sunday Worker were falling catastrophically. (Already in September, the Sunday Worker, then edited by Walter Holmes, was describing the Labour Government as “social-fascist”.) In spite of the removal of the National Left-Wing “barrier”, Party membership was also declining. (These facts were ascribed by the advocates of the further turn to the Left to the lateness and hesitancy of the old leadership in applying the change of line, not to the line itself.) In the pre-Congress discussion, owing to the powerful backing given by the EC of the Communist International to the Dutt-Pollitt group, full publicity was allowed in the Party press to lengthy, scathing and abusive resolutions passed by district organisations of the Party, and letters, such as one by W. Tapsell, warning the Central Committee that they would not be allowed to get away with a “mere regrouping of the old gang”; “at least over half, if not more”, of the leadership must be displaced. The Sunday Worker was closed down altogether.
At first the most prominent leaders of the majority on the Central Committee attempted to stem the Leftist tide, but, faced with the fact that their adversaries in the districts were fully informed about proceedings at Central Committee meetings and about the threatening communications sent them by the EC of the CI, they soon had to turn tail and some then endeavoured to join in the denunciation of the “Right danger” as the only way of saving themselves from dismissal. R.P. Dutt wrote in the Workers’ Life in November 1929: “Certainly we are only concerned with persons as expression of political tendencies, and need to beware of formulating the issues in such a way that the primary question appears to be a question of personalities. But the fight of principles necessarily finds expression as a fight of persons. This is at the very root of the difference of Bolshevik methods from ILP ‘gentlemanly’ methods.”
(In the September Communist Review he had demanded that “the easy-going attitude which is satisfied to ‘recognise’ mistakes and pass on, without deeper analysis or drawing of lessons for the future, and with the inevitable consequences of repeating these mistakes in new forms, must end.”)
Much play was made in the discussion of the fact that Rothstein (seen by some as the arch-embodiment of the Right danger) was an “intellectual”; though Dutt, undoubtedly the prime mover in the Moscow-backed revolt, was certainly no less an intellectual. (Both are Balliol men.)
The discussion which raged in the pages of Workers’ Life during October and November of 1929 makes astonishing reading today, so remote from reality and carried away by frenzy do some of the participants seem to have been. There was a letter from Jack Cohen, for example, complaining that the Minority Movement was being allowed to appear as the leader of strike struggles in industry, thus concealing the face of the Party; and one from Emile Burns calling for a sterner policy of splitting the trade unions and forming new, “Red” ones under Communist leadership.
The Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party, held in Leeds in November-December, 1929, registered the final, total triumph of the “New Line” in deeds as well as words, with guarantees in the form of changes in the leadership. (These changes were facilitated by the circulation to Party branches of minutes of the Central Committee for a period of 12 months showing how the various members had voted on disputed issues.) Congress in the main shared the spirit of the message which it received from the Presidium of the ECCI, calling for “a final and decisive break with the opportunist hesitations and vacillations of the past” and speaking of the “fascization of the Labour Party and its appendage, the sham Lefts” and of “the fascization of the trade unions”. The only opposition came from the South Wales delegates, led by Arthur Homer. This Congress opened a period in which, led by Pollitt and Dutt (who emerged as chief theoretician as a result of the “banishment” of Rothstein to the USSR immediately after the Congress), the Party became completely and utterly isolated from the mainstream of the British Labour movement for several years, functioning as a sort of honorary agency of the Comintern.
In August, 1930, the Communist Review observed sadly that “although we have stood on the line of the Comintern. … yet the membership continues to fall, and the Party is still largely isolated from the masses.” When the Labour Government collapsed in 1931 the Communists were unable to gain a single seat in the resultant election. In essence the Party continued its sectarian line of self-isolation — with special emphasis on denouncing the Left in the Labour movement, such as the ILP, as the “most dangerous enemies of the working class” until Hitler’s victory in 1933 gave a jolt to the entire world Communist movement and in Britain produced a certain thawing in relations with the ILP. A fairly clean break with the outlook of 1929 had to wait, however, until the Seventh World Congress, in 1935, with Dimitrov’s speech on the United Front against Fascism.
The story of the Eleventh Congress of the British Communist Party is sometimes told as though the central issue was whether or not a Communist daily newspaper, the Daily Worker, should commence publication on January 1, 1930. In fact, as the Workers’ Life report shows, Harry Pollitt was one of those who argued at the Congress in favour of postponement; the real question at issue was what should be the policy to be advocated in the new organ, or rather, what changes of leadership were needed if the policy laid down by the Comintern’s Ninth and Tenth Plenums was to be implemented through the Daily Worker without reservation or wavering of any kind. It is also said that among the important issues at the Congress was that of whether or not the Party should be “solidly based on the factories”. Certainly there was much demagogic talk and writing about factories, factory-workers and the proletarian basis of the Party, for the sake of identifying the Left line with the working class and the “Right danger” with some intellectuals or other. Nevertheless, the Congress in fact opened a period of several years during which the Communist Party had less of a footing in industry than ever before, and it became predominantly a party of the unemployed — among whom indeed, its best work was done during that period. The Minority Movement in the trade unions (perhaps the most promising achievement of the British Communists in the 1920s) was not long in following the National Left-Wing Movement into dissolution.
First published in Labour Review, 1956