Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

6. Revolution or Reform: The Left in the 1920s

SO FAR we have not discussed how revolutionary socialists should relate to Labour in a practical way. This became an immediate issue when the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1920. [1*] Unlike Labour, the Communist Party did not see workers as a stage army serving parliament. Its central focus was the collective organisation of workers, whether it be the ‘Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement’, the ‘Minority Movement’ or the unions generally. But the Communist Party also rejected the syndicalist disregard of politics. It was assisted in its tasks by membership of the Comintern – the Communist International, whose leaders were Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin intervened in the debates which preceded the foundation of the British Communist Party; Trotsky entered the scene in the mid-1920s.

Lenin’s starting point was the 1917 Russian revolution, the sole example of working-class power. The Bolsheviks had shown, first, that there is no gradual parliamentary road to socialism, only revolution; second, that this requires the active support of the mass of workers, and, finally, that a mass revolutionary party of the Bolshevik kind must be present to lead the way to victory.

Translated into British terms this meant that to open the road towards socialism, three tasks had to be achieved: it had to be demonstrated that Labour’s reformism inevitably turns it against revolution; Labour’s restraining influence over the majority of workers must be broken; and workers must be won to a revolutionary alternative.

Home-grown attitudes to Labour

Before the foundation of the Communist Party, British revolutionaries had two attitudes towards Labour. On the one hand there was the British Socialist Party (BSP), successor to the SDF. Established in 1912, the BSP merely replaced the SDF’s sectarianism with an unprincipled accommodation to the Labour Party. The BSP believed Labour was ‘nothing other than the political expression of the trade union-organized workers.’ [1] It followed that revolutionaries must not split away from the true workers’ party, and Labour could be won to revolutionary socialism. As one delegate told the Communist Party’s founding conference: ‘Let us see that we unceasingly carried out our task, until such time as the Labour Party became a Labour Party with a Communist mind – and this could be done [so that] inscribed on the Labour Party banner were the hammer and sickle.’ [2]

An opposite view was put by J.T. Murphy of the syndicalist Socialist Labour Party (SLP). He countered the BSP by rightly pointing out that: ‘The Labour Party is not the working class organized politically as a class but the political reflex of the trade union bureaucracy and the petty bourgeois.’ Unfortunately he wrongly assumed Labour to be simply ‘an instrument of reaction, a body to be destroyed.’

Murphy had mistaken the trade union bureaucracy and Labour Party for tame servants of reaction, denying their reformist role. By so doing he saw no need to relate to their followers, the ordinary Labour supporters, arguing the immediate aim was ‘to destroy the Labour Party as an enemy of the proletarian revolution ... by working for disaffiliation of the unions.’ [3]

Lenin’s analysis

Lenin rejected both BSP and SLP positions. He denied the one-sided claims that Labour was either a workers’ political party or purely reactionary . It was a capitalist workers’ party with all the contradictions that that involved:

it is a highly original party, or rather, it is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of members of all trade unions ... It thus includes a vast number of British workers who follow the lead of the worst bourgeois elements, the social-traitors, who are even worse than Scheidemann, Noske [Social Democrats who butchered the German revolution] and similar people. [4]

Building a Communist alternative required an outright break from the Labour Party ‘as an organisation of the bourgeoisie which exists to systematically dupe the workers’. [5] But at the same time revolutionaries needed a relationship with the Labour rank and file. ‘If the [advanced] minority is unable to lead the masses and establish close links with them, then it is not a party, and is worthless in general.’ ‘Cooperation’ had to be ‘carried on systematically’. Without a connection between Communists and ordinary Labour supporters, ‘between the vanguard of the working class and the backward workers ... the Communist Party will be worthless and there can be no question of the dictatorship of the proletariat at all.’ [6]

Of course the form of cooperation between vanguard and mass is subject to change. The Labour Party is not always the central priority, but to imagine, as Murphy did, that revolutionaries can relate to workers without having to address their political ideas was sheer syndicalism.

The affiliation tactic

Having established the principle of building a mass revolutionary party in opposition to Labour, Lenin proposed the tactic of applying for affiliation to the Labour Party!

Britain was the only place where affiliation to a reformist party was urged in this way. Elsewhere the strategy was only to break away. In Britain the route to a mass Marxist party would be more tortuous. First, there had to be the split. The BSP members who wished to become Communists were already in the Labour Party, but had to come out.They would then reapply to affiliate as the Communist Party, this time on a principled revolutionary basis.

For Lenin the request for affiliation was not the end in itself, simply a means to the end. It would help the young Communist Party ‘expose opportunist leaders from a higher tribune, that is in fuller view of the masses.’ [7] But what if Labour refused the application? ‘If the Hendersons and Snowdens reject a bloc with us ... we shall gain still more, for we shall at once have shown the masses ... that the Hendersons prefer their close relations with the capitalist to the unity of all the workers.’ [8]

Lenin saw affiliation as conditional on certain vital factors. First: ‘the Party of Communists can join the Labour Party only on condition that it preserves full freedom of criticism and is able to conduct its own policy. This is of extreme importance.’ [9] No Continental social democratic party - conceded freedom of criticism and autonomy, but Lenin believed that the Labour Party’s unique alliance between unions and socialist societies would permit such open revolutionary agitation. In evidence he cited the BSP’s newspaper The Call, which openly attacked Labour leaders with impunity. [2*]

Secondly, the tactic was conceived in the context of the immediate prospect of European revolution. The Comintern thought the battle of revolution versus reform would soon be over. Affiliation was therefore a short-term policy for winning workers to the Communist Party, not a long-term one for becoming an integral part of Labour.

Finally, Lenin’s proposal depended on a clearly demarcated Communist Party, able to contrast its politics to those of Labour before the masses. This made Communist Party affiliation very different from that of the BSP. When the BSP had applied to join the Labour Party it made no mention of politics at all, pleading only that its seven prospective parliamentary candidates be permitted to run under Labour colours. [10] Unlike the BSP, Lenin had no intention that the Communist Party should capture the Labour Party, nor that it should dilute its own revolutionary Marxism in order to stay inside. As Duncan Hallas puts it, the Communist Party would go into the Labour Party ‘with flags flying and drums beating ... to conduct a vigorous and open offensive against the social traitors, ie. against the whole leadership and political tradition of the Labour Party.’ [11] [3*]

Tactics have changed with circumstances. Since the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the late 1920s, affiliation on a revolutionary basis has ceased to be credible. Yet Lenin’s method retains a permanent validity. Razor-sharp it cut right across the BSP’s adaptation to reformism, as it did the SLP’s ultra-left dismissal of the Labour rank and file.

Voting Labour

The ultra-left in the SLP and elsewhere thought that voting Labour would compromise their purity and implicate their organisations in Labour’s betrayals. They believed opposition to reformism was expressed by abstaining or running candidates whose primary purpose was to attack the Labour Party.

Lenin dismissed such ideas, stressing once more the need to win mass support for Communism:

If we are the party of a revolutionary class and not merely a revolutionary group ... we must, first, help Henderson or Snowden to beat Lloyd George and Churchill; second, we must help the majority of the working class to be convinced by their own experience that we are right, i.e. that the Hendersons and Snowdens are absolutely good for nothing ... that their bankruptcy is inevitable; third, we must bring nearer the moment when, on the basis of the disappointment of most of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible, with serious chances of success, to overthrow the Government of the Hendersons at once. [13]

Though coloured by the rosy prospects of 1920, this approach had very practical advantages over the right-wing BSP (‘Vote Labour with illusions’) and ultra-left SLP (‘Don’t vote Labour’). It meant reaching out to a wide audience without abandoning revolutionary politics. As Lenin wrote:

British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain ... why the Soviets are better than Parliament. [14]

The Communist Party could do more, he said. At election times the party leaflet should call for a ‘vote for the Labour Party in order to prove that the Hendersons, Thomases, MacDonalds and Snowdens, could not solve the manifold problems confronting society through the Parliamentary machine.’ [15]

Lenin did not call for ‘Labour to power on a socialist programme’ since no socialist programme is possible for a reformist parliamentary party. His position can be summed up as: ‘Vote Labour without illusions’; although Lenin had a more colourful description: ‘I want to support Henderson in the same way as a rope supports a hanged man.’ [16]

The early Communist Party

At its founding convention the Communist Party accepted affiliation by 110 votes to 85. A letter was sent to Labour HQ incorporating just three points: ‘a) The Communists in conference assembled declare for the Soviet (or Workers’ Council) system; b) The Communist Party repudiates the reformist view that a Social Revolution can be achieved by the ordinary methods of Parliamentary Democracy.’ Then came the request for affiliation. [17] This was very much in the spirit of Lenin’s arguments, with Tommy Jackson finding an even more blood-curdling metaphor than Lenin’s hanged man: ‘Let us take the Labour leaders by the hand as a preliminary to taking them by the throat.’

Not surprisingly the 1921 Labour Conference turned down affiliation by 4,115,000 to 224,000, and there were similar votes in 1922, 1923 and 1924. [18] Did this mean the affiliation tactic had failed?

Far from it. Success did not rest on any conference vote. Despite the toughness of the Communist Party’s approach there is ample evidence that it raised its revolutionary political profile while at the same time relating to local Labour Party members.

One example was the Caerphilly by-election in August 1921. Though this was a mining constituency where Labour was sure to win, anger against right-wing Labour movement leaders was still bubbling after Black Friday. The Communist Party decided to use its candidacy to build its organisation and register a left-wing protest. An indication that this was not a sectarian mistake came when the entire Labour Party branch at Bedlinog resigned to campaign for the Communist. He won a respectable protest vote amounting to 20 per cent of the successful Labour candidate’s total. [19]

There had been fears expressed that standing for parliament would play into the hands of reformists. But because the Caerphilly campaign was clearly related to workers’ direct struggle, it successfully used the political interest aroused by elections to get the revolutionary argument across.

The question of whether Communists should stand for election where Labour was running (thereby splitting the workers’ vote and risking the victory of the openly capitalist candidate) was also addressed. Revolutionaries (unlike reformists) do not make a fetish out of parliament. The decision to stand depends on whether or not this will assist workers’ self-activity and build the revolutionary party. A campaign which produced a derisory vote could only demoralise the left. One that lined up in sectarian fashion with the openly capitalist Tory or Liberal parties against Labour would be equally damaging. Caerphilly avoided both dangers.

Although the Labour leadership was incensed by Communist tactics, many of the rank and file saw it differently. In the 1922 general election six Communist candidates enjoyed local Labour Party support and two were successful, Walton Newbold (Motherwell) and Saklatvala (Battersea North).

Winning two seats in parliament – a minor concern for revolutionaries – was merely the most visible sign of the Communist Party’s ability to relate to the advanced sections of the Labour Party without abandoning its opposition to Labourism. Further evidence was provided by the impressive list of local Labour Party branches and unions which repeatedly backed affiliation. In 1923, for example, these included seventeen engineering branches, sixteen miners’ lodges and four NUR branches as well as the furniture and shop workers’ unions at national level.

The inevitable pressures

Like any genuine intervention of revolutionaries in a hostile environment, the Communist Party’s strategy lacked the security of sectarian isolation, exposing Communist Party members to the risk of being influenced by Labour’s reformist milieu even as they sought to win its rank and file. An article in The Communist of 1922 showed the dangers: ‘The Communist Party wants to be able to advocate the working-class programme ... and it cannot do this effectively outside the all-embracing working-class organisation – the Labour Party.’ [20]

The writer had fallen into every trap. To say revolutionaries could not be effective outside Labour was to forget that Lenin considered rejection of affiliation to be a valuable lesson which would assist Communism. And how could Labour be ‘the all-embracing working-class organisation’ if it excluded the only people who could point the way to a socialist society?

A pull towards reformism was the price the Communist Party had to pay for intervention, but it was worthwhile as long as the leadership understood the need to combat such tendencies towards political degeneration. However, when Lenin died and Stalinism took over the Comintern, the correct orientation on Labour was obscured. The turning point came at the end of 1923 when the Communist Party decided to secretly send its members into the Labour Party in ones and twos so as not to attract attention. [21] This negated the affiliation tactic as a public exposure of Labour’s reformism.

The results could be seen during the first Labour government. Palme Dutt, editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper, forgot that Communists wanted Labour in office to demonstrate its bankruptcy, not to apologise for it:

We are not fighting against the Labour Government, which it is our concern to uphold and sustain ... we cannot [say] that every folly and weakness of a Labour Government plays into our hands. It is not so. [22]

Palme Dutt implied that Labour in government was somehow ‘a lesser evil’. He was mistaken. The Tories, as the open party of capitalism, are relatively straightforward in their defence of the system. In that sense they have already exposed their true political tendencies. But although Labour believes it can steer a middle course between classes, once in office it is called upon to use the state to break strikes and so on. In practice it was not a lesser evil. [4*]

The example of the Mensheviks in Russia illustrates this. Until the middle of 1917 they were a reformist party, to the right of the Bolsheviks, but far more radical than the British Labour Party ever was and apparently miles away from the official parties of the Tsarist state. This changed after October. They then lined up with the most reactionary White generals and the forces of international capitalism attempting to crush the first workers’ state.

The Left Wing Movement

Disappointment with the first Labour government created openings for Communist Party. Disgust With MacDonald was rife. Beatrice Webb wrote: ‘The party is certainly in a bad state of mind ... Poor MacDonald, what a mess he has made of it. [23]

The Communists’ response was to build a ‘Left Wing Movement’. The LWM’s newspaper, the Sunday Worker, reached a circulation over 100,000 copies, clear proof that disgruntled Labour activists were looking for answers. But the LWM was actually an obstacle to revolutionary politics. Why was this so?

The LWM described itself as consisting of:

sympathetic Labour Parties and left Wing Groups who are pledged to work within the Labour Party for a left Wing programme. It is not part of the objects of the Left Wing to create splits within the Labour Party, nor is it under the domination of any political party. [24]

Its chief efforts were directed at getting detailed resolutions through Labour Party Conference. The resolution on foreign policy, for example, included opposition to the league of Nations, abandonment of imperialism, diplomatic relations with the USSR and support for the Chinese Nationalists. Then came industrial policy: a minimum wage, a 44-hour week, workers’ control, nationalisation of all basic industries without compensation and the formation of a Workers’ Defence Corps. This was followed by policy documents on ‘Land and Agriculture’, ‘Unemployment’, Rational and Local Finance’, ‘Health and Housing’, ‘Local Government’ and so on.

The Left Wing Movement was not, as the Communist Party claimed, an application of the Comintern ‘united front’ tactic. Correctly applied, this involved an attempt ‘to force the leaderships of the reformist and centrist organisations into limited co-operation on concrete issues by winning their followers for unity in action.’ [25] The LWM was neither limited, concrete, nor tied to action. Its vast range of policies, couched in the form of worthy resolutions rather than designed for action, made it a sort of pseudo-revolutionary party in its own right.

Not only did it substitute for the Communist Party, it involved Communists sustaining a reformist left within the Labour Party. Labour lefts were too contradictory in their attitudes to organise coherently for themselves. As the 1925 Communist Party Congress heard: ‘We have found the left-wing’ elements without the Communist Party entirely lacking in initiative ... until our members step in ... the others do not move.’ [26] The Communist Party gained nothing because there was now a left-sounding home inside the Labour Party for those who, had they had to choose between MacDonald and revolutionary socialism, might have opted for the latter

There are occasions when, as a means of exposing the leaders, revolutionaries put demands on reformist organisations which they expect will be rejected. But this is not always effective as an exposure. It all depends on whether the demand helps mobilise the reformist rank and file, or demobilises it. To be useful, it must be related to the consciousness of the rank and file.

The demand for affiliation in 1920 was a good example. Labour claimed to be a ‘broad church’ and during the period of the Council of Action, was spouting its most-left wing rhetoric ever. In such a context the Communist Party’s request for affiliation seemed valid to Labour supporters. Whether or not Henderson acceded to it, valuable propaganda opportunities opened up.

But the Left Wing Movement’s approach did the reverse. To call, after the MacDonald ministry, for Labour to be returned to power on a semi-revolutionary programme did not excuse the leadership before its supporters. The distance between the first Labour government and the Left Wing Movement’s demand was so great that these demands seemed an impossible fantasy. Even worse, Communist Party sympathisers inside the Labour Party fell into believing LWM demands could be carried out.

The emphasis on conference motions played into the hands of Labour leaders adept at the game of resolution-mongering as a substitute for real action. Did anyone, apart from the Left Wing, seriously imagine MacDonald and his cronies would take any notice of motions demanding ‘the overthrow of the capitalist class and the establishment of international socialism.’ [27]

The Left Wing campaign did not help workers discover the Labour Party was bankrupt. On the contrary. It suggested to the best elements that it was not. As a Communist Party pamphlet declared:

the workers in the Labour Party must rally to the ‘Reds’ ... and fight for a new programme and a new leadership within the Labour Party, which is the sole guarantee of success in the heavy struggles that are inevitable in the near future. [28]

The theoretical flaw: Labour equals the trade unions

The theories that underpinned the LWM were expounded by Palme Dutt and J.T. Murphy.

The key argument was put by Palme Dutt:’Between the mass of the Trade Unions and the mass of the Labour Party there can be no divergence, because the Trade Unions are the Labour Party.’ [29] This was the BSP’s position all over again, but with a difference. Palme Dutt admitted the reactionary nature of the Labour leadership. He thought that as the mass struggle moved trade unionists leftwards they would drive out the union bureaucracy and, after a delay, convert Labour to revolutionary politics:

It is natural that the class struggle, revealing itself first in its primitive economic forms without relation to political consciousness, should meet with heavy opposition and obstruction ... but must eventually win its way forward, within the ranks of the Labour Party.’ [30]

The mistakes here are numerous. Firstly, the British trade union bureaucracy will never lead revolutionary struggle and will not be removed this side of a socialist revolution. Experience has shown that rank and file movements independent of the trade union machine are needed to free the rising class movement from bureaucratic control. [31] If this is true of the union bureaucracy, it is even less likely that the Labour Party leadership can be made responsive to a revolutionary working class. [5*]

It is also wrong to suggest that because revolutionaries must be in the unions it follows that they should stay in the Labour Party. Despite formal links, the two are in fact quite different institutions. As we have written elsewhere:

Despite the ... affiliated trade union membership, the party had no direct relationship with the point of production. The [union] bureaucracy signed the cheques and cast the block votes at conference, not the rank and file. Further, the ordinary union member’s connection with the party was either totally passive or at best consisted in canvassing ... Thus despite the overlap of membership and leaders, the unions and Labour Party were functionally separate and subject to very different influences.

The workplace and the polling booth confront people in different ways, the one as members of the working class in a collective unit, the other as individual citizens of the national state. For these reasons revolutionaries cannot have the same approach to trade unions and the Labour Party. One is the mass organisation of the working class, the other claimed to be a mass organisation acting on behalf of the working class. [32]

Furthermore, parties and unions are organised on different lines. A party is a voluntary grouping united on the basis of shared political ideas. Trade unions follow the contours of capitalist industry and are not so concerned with the political beliefs of those who join.

Labour’s trade union links made it an exception to the rule. But despite the affiliated trade unions, when Communist Party members said: ‘We are going to a Labour Party meeting’, they were not referring to their union branches but to the local ward. Apart from Communist Party entrists, this was composed of people whose only motive for meeting was that they shared reformist beliefs.

The content of union meetings necessarily differed from Labour ones, and revolutionaries had to relate differently to each. At the former the agenda concerned collective organisation and industrial or economic resistance. Through their workplaces revolutionaries had a common class bond with the membership and so had the right to intervene and offer a lead in collective struggle or perhaps raise wider Marxist positions. It was a springboard for arguing revolutionary politics.

What cemented the Labour Party branch together, however, was general reformist politics – how parliament or the local council should be used. This gave no common starting point for revolutionaries. Of course, given the absolute freedom that Lenin had demanded when he suggested affiliation, revolutionaries could have attended ward meetings to explain why parliament offered no solutions and that socialism could only come about through smashing the state, not through its reform. But the repeated rejection of affiliation and the beginnings of a witch-hunt meant this was not possible.

In other words both theoretically and practically, while the Labour Party was connected with the unions(through the bureaucracy)it was not the same as the unions.

From reformist mistakes to ultra-leftism

The flaw in the Communist Party’s analysis had damaging consequences. It led Murphy to imagine that the Labour leadership would inevitably fall to the left. In the summer of 1925 he wrote:

The working class is only at the beginnings of its revolutionary experience and education. The labour Party will grow in numbers and strength as the working class in increasing numbers awaken to political consciousness. In the process ... the bourgeois politics which dominate it to-day [will be] cleansed from its ranks. [33]

Apart from the non-Marxist and mechanical idea of the ineluctable march of history by which the mass of Labour supporters are ‘inevitably destined to be driven’ [34], Murphy was wrong to see workers’ struggles transforming Labour in their own image. We have seen that the great advances in working class struggle – 1910–14, the shop stewards’ movement and 1919 – did not lead advanced workers towards Labour, but away from it. Labour’s influence over the vanguard grew only when the development of working-class consciousness was blocked by defeat.

Even without such evidence Murphy would have been mistaken. Labour was distanced from workers and not subject to their control. Revolutionary parties may sometimes be out of step with the mass movement and have to be forced back into line – the obvious example being the Bolsheviks at certain stages in the 1917 revolution. But while they can make wrong turnings, these are easily rectified because the aim of the party (its rank and file and its leaders alike) is to develop the workers’ struggle to its highest point. In the revolutionary party there is no bureaucracy with a vested interest in the preservation of existing society.

Not so with the Labour Party. The leadership always sees the wider movement as subordinate to parliament and the state. Labour responds to mass pressure (as with the adoption of Clause Four), but it does so only in order to release excess steam and prevent an explosion.

Moreover, to believe that right-wing politics would be automatically cleansed from the ranks was to forget that the only way to unmask fake leftism is by creating an alternative leadership free to initiate real action. It is through the test of practice that reformism is dissipated.

The Communist Party’s theory led to further errors. If Labour mirrored workers’ consciousness, then what did MacDonald and Henderson represent? According to Murphy they were partly middle class ‘invaders and partly an historical remnant of Liberalism’. [35] Palme Dutt concurred. Writing at the end of 1924 he described the right-wing leaders as alien usurpers of power. Their days were numbered:

When, therefore, the ex-trade union parliamentary adventurers and honest middle-class muddleheads in the wake of Mr MacDonald endeavour to fasten a non-working-class formula, such as parliamentary democracy, on the Labour Party, they are only showing their own narrowness and complete unconsciousness of the character of the working-class movement ... the working class struggle will press forward beyond them. [36]

Such optimism evaporated with the anti-Communist Party witch-hunt. It was the revolutionary left, not the right, whose days were numbered in the Labour Party. Now the argument changed:

Either the [right-wing] will destroy the Labour Party and turn it into a Liberal Party and an enemy of the workers, like the German Social Democratic Party, or the Labour Party must destroy them. Either the Labour Party will become a new version of the Liberal Party and share its fate, or else the labour Party must become an open class party. [37]

The bald phrase – ‘either Liberalism or Socialism’ – ignored the permanent contradiction of a capitalist workers’ party.

By 1928 the witch-hunt was in full swing and the Comintern was entering its ‘third period’ insanity. Now the formula ‘Labour equals the unions’ had completed its journey from reformism to ultra-leftism. If Labour was no longer the workers’ political party then it must be an open capitalist party. The 10th Communist Party Congress announced: ‘the Labour Party in 1928 has come out unmistakeably as the third capitalist party.’ [38] The majority of workers missed this ‘unmistakeable’ event.

The grotesque sectarian policies which Lenin fought against in 1920 were now wheeled out as fresh ideas. Some Communists wanted union disaffiliation from Labour. Others wanted to tell workers, to stop paying the political levy – at the very time when the Tories were attempting the same thing through the use of the law. The totally unscientific notion of ‘social fascism’ was hurled at Labour and all its works. The theory of social fascism, peddled by Stalin at the end of the 1920s, suggested that all the parties – from social democracy to the Nazis – were simply different facets of a common reactionary politics, and that Communists should treat them with equal contempt. This entirely overlooked the nature of reformist parties such as Labour and the need to relate to their mass of working-class followers.

The early Communist Party had wrestled courageously against immense difficulties in Britain, the home of reformism. Their failings derived from a faulty analysis and later the baneful influence of Stalinism. It is not a matter of apportioning blame; hindsight confers an advantage which we have no right to squander. The mistakes must not be repeated.

Trotsky’s contribution

Trotsky’s major contributions to our understanding of the Labour Party are in Lessons of October (1924) and Where is Britain Going? (1925). He wrote them against Stalin and the Comintern leaders who believed Britain did not require a distinct mass Communist Party.

In 1929 Trotsky discussed the debate in retrospect, quoting his own work 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 ... 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.’ (Lessons of October)

The same problem is posed on a wider scale in my book Where is Britain Going? This book, from beginning to end, is devoted to proving the idea that the British 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 British Communist Party can ... be equal in the course of a few years to the tasks before it. [39]

Trotsky’s analysis of the Labour leadership elaborated Lenin’s main themes and was blistering in its attack:

These pomps authorities, pedants and haughty, high-falutin’ cowards are systematically poisoning the labour movement, clouding the consciousness of the proletariat and paralysing its will. It is only thanks to them that Toryism, Liberalism, the Church, the monarchy, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie continue to survive ... The Fabians, the ILPers and the conservative trade union bureaucrats today represent the most counter-revolutionary force in Great Britain, and possibly in the present stage of development, in the whole world ... Workers must at all costs be shown these ... liveried footmen of the bourgeoisie in their true colours. [40]

However he did not take an ultra-left line and ignore the link between Labour and the unions. In fact he went beyond Lenin, to locate the specific role of the trade union bureaucracy on the political wing of reformism:

the Labour Party ... is only a political transposition of the trade union bureaucracy ... these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour. Together they are the fundamental support of the domination of the British bourgeoisie. [41]

Where is Britain Going? was an excellent work which critics derided for its suggestion that Britain was on the eve of gigantic class struggles. Trotsky was vindicated dramatically by the General Strike and miners’ lockout just a year afterwards. While the basic propositions in the book were clear and absolutely correct, one important prediction was wrong:

A certain analogy would appear to arise between the fate of the Communist and Independent [ILP] parties. Both the former and the latter existed as propaganda societies rather than parties of the working class. Then at a profound turning-point in Britain’s historical development the Independent party headed the proletariat. After a short interval the Communist Party will, we submit, undergo the same upsurge. [Therefore] the Communist Party will occupy the place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents. [42]

In no sense did Trotsky suggest that the Communist Party and ILP shared common politics. The latter was ‘in a class sense not worth a rotten egg’ while the Communist Party’s destiny was to ‘prepare itself for the leading role.’ [43] The witch-hunt, which took off just after Trotsky wrote the book, soon put paid to any idea that revolutionaries could lead from inside the party.

Yet a nagging question remains. Could the mechanism which brought ILP leaders like MacDonald to lead the party be a model for others? To answer this we must pick up the threads of the ILP’s story which we left in 1918.

The ILP pays the price of reformist ‘success’

For an organisation which by the mid-1920s had reached just 30,000 members, the ILP seemed to have been blessed with astounding good fortune. In 1906 there were 18 ILP members among the 30 Labour MPs, rising to 121 out of 191 during the first Labour government. (Moreover there were six ILP members in the cabinet, three of them from the ILP’s ruling National Administrative Council). [6*] The 1924 election raised the proportion to 114 out of 150.

The astute Wertheimer was not deceived. He noticed that although the ILP’s ‘political influence seemed to reach peak-point’, its ‘membership was always subservient to Labour Party allegiance whenever the two came into conflict ... The responsibilities of statesmanship proved stronger than the party politics.’ [44]

That remorseless degeneration which had started the day the ILP spurned the title ‘socialist’ in order to win a parliamentary foothold had become a gangrene whose spread kept pace with the number of MPs. The putrefaction erupted to the surface during the first Labour government:

the ILP appeared at the very pinnacle of its power, when its members were in a Cabinet and Government whose leader they had helped to select ... The failure to win even the active sympathy of a Front Bench which, in principle, was dominated by the ILP suggests a lack of commitment in ILP allegiance which was remarkable. Throughout the period it is almost impossible to detect what MacDonald would have called ‘the ILP spirit’ in anything the Labour Government achieved. [45]

Leaders who had used ILP membership as a ladder to success now kicked it away. MacDonald told the ILP to: ‘mind its own business and regard Socialism, not as a creed of a lot of blethering easie-oozie asses who are prepared to pass any resolution without knowing its meaning.’ [46] Snowden proposed the ILP’s disbandment, MacDonald its castration. (They resigned from the ILP in 1927 and 1930 respectively). Clifford Allen’s rather pathetic defence of the ILP’s existence was that ‘there was a necessity for a Left Wing organisation in the larger Party; otherwise there would be a tendency of certain elements to drift towards the Communist Party.’ [47] [7*]

Thirty years of hard work, the achievement of parliamentary influence beyond their wildest imaginings, had brought the rank and file ILP members exactly nothing. There are two common explanations for left-wing failure. Reformists and centrists blame individual weakness of character – the next leader must ‘try harder’. To the ultra-left, failure proves that all intervention must be shunned. The real reason was that the ILP attempted the impossible – to satisfy workers’ aspirations through capitalist institutions.

ILP socialists were like industrial militants who suppose that by winning top union posts they gain control. In the end they invariably wake to find that one remote bureaucrat is simply replaced by another.

The Clydesiders

The ‘Clyde Brigade’ valiantly tried to break this impasse. In 1925 and 1926, they drove MacDonald’s supporters from the ILP leadership. The change was symbolised by Jimmy Maxton replacing Clifford Allen as party chairman.

The Clydesiders did not contribute a new politics, but a certain style. They attempted by sheer will-power to bridge the widening gap between working-class aspirations and the MPs in parliament, a gap that was imposed by the Parliamentary game. The famous procession to St Enoch’s Station in Glasgow on 19 November 1922 captured the mood. Kirkwood wrote:

We were going to do big things. The people believed that. We believed that. At our onslaught, the grinding poverty which existed in the midst of plenty was to be wiped out. We were going to scare away the grim spectre of unemployment which stands grinning behind the chair of every artizan. [49]

In parliament they resolved by personal example [8*] to galvanise the sagging ranks of Labour Party and frighten the government benches. Johnny Muir, ex-revolutionary, leader of the Clyde stewards began the attack: ‘Muir asked for no palliatives ... the system was wrong and the system must go. When he sat down, Sir John Simon stepped across, wrung him by the hand, and cordially congratulated him on a brilliant maiden effort.’ [50] The experience must have broken Muir, for he became a lame MacDonald supporter. Something stronger was needed. They decided to create scenes, sometimes on the floor of the Commons and occasionally outside.

The first occasion was 27 June 1923. Despite an 11 per cent rise in tuberculosis deaths among children, the Tory spokesman, Walter Elliott was cutting health expenditure. Maxton rose to describe how his own wife died nursing their sick child back to life. He castigated Elliott’s party policy: ‘I call it murder. I call the men who initiated the policy murderers.’ [53] Uproar followed and Maxton was suspended. Wheatley jumped to his feet and repeated the accusation, followed by Campbell Stephen and Buchanan. They were all thrown out. Later Maxton was removed for uttering such dreadful words as ‘blackguard’, ‘liar’ and ‘damned unfair’! The House of Commons has presided over the forcible subjugation of a third of the planet and its policies have, whether deliberately or not, shortened the lives of millions. But so to accuse a Right Honourable Member is unforgivable!

The Clyde comrades’ outburst was totally sincere and fully justified. Their personal incorruptibility was absolute. But the value of their strategy must be evaluated. Although appearing rebellious, it operated within strict limits. The Parliamentary outburst was designed to shake up the House of Commons, not to smash it.

‘Socialism in our time’

The Clydesiders’ weakness has been common to ‘official’ Labour lefts. Like the right they combine class and nation, though the left gives extra emphasis to class. This sharing of a common ideological ground between left and right was evident in the ILP’s acceptance of ‘Hobsonism’ – a theory which inspired the ILP under the MacDonald supporter Clifford Allen and under Maxton.

J.A. Hobson was a Liberal economist who sought an alternative to socialism. He wrote: ‘Talk about “the abolition of the wage system” is commonly as vague as it is heroic. What isfeasible is the gradual enforcement of the principle of a living wage, embodied in’ a minimum standard of comfort for a class.’ [54] Later he added the notion that capitalist crises were due to underconsumption. Workers could not buy back everything they produced and over-production was the result. By stimulating demand through a minimum wage or providing family allowances, the boom/slump cycle could be abolished.

There was nothing socialist about Hobsonism. Keynes, a Liberal, adopted similar ideas while Henry Ford, viciously anti-union and champion of an aggressive modem capitalism, argued the same thing: ‘an underpaid man is a customer’ reduced in purchasing power. He cannot buy ... The cure for business depression is through purchasing power.’ [55]

Hobson’s idea that the interests of workers and bosses could be made compatible through the planning of demand was ideal for all sorts of reformists. The right-wing TUC leaders after the General Strike took it to justify collaboration between employers and unions. Hobsonism served Oswald Mosley as a Labour minister in the 1920s and as a fascist in the early 1930s.

In the mid-1920s Hobson and other ‘exerts’ joined ILP Commissions to develop a range of new policies. The result was ‘The Living Wage’ or ‘Socialism in Our Time’. Proponents like H.N. Brailsford made it clear that ‘the New Socialist Policy’ was quite feasible ‘even with privately-owned industries’. [56] Like Fabianism, this was ruling class ideology masquerading insocialist clothing. An attempt to plan capitalism rationally and stimulate demand appeared to benefit workers, but did so only to the degree that their enemy, the capitalist system, was strengthened even more.

Yet when the clydesiders took over the ILP leadership they swallowed the bait-hook, line and sinker. Of course they gave it a left-wing colouring. A living wage and family allowances would help workers, and the bosses’ refusal to pay up could have been an excuse to expropriate them with or without compensation, as the ILP argued. Yet all this only seemed plausible if the entire structure of capitalism and the state were overlooked. Vagueness suited Maxton’s temperament, but Wheatley, the intellectual power-house of the group, felt a duty to think the policy through and draw conclusions. The result was terrifying nonsense.

The state must organise capitalism within the national framework: ‘Socialists recognised that if Britain is to be saved from submersion ... our aim [must be] to link up our essential industries as departments of one great national British industry working in cooperation with other parts of the Empire.’ [57] And why not use the British Empire? Until the first Labour government only rabid right-wingers slobbered over the Empire. Now the left discovered it was part of a state whose power they wished to increase and they competed with each other in extolling its virtues. Thomas Johnston, editor of the ILP’s paper, Forward, modestly described the empire as ‘the greatest lever of human emancipation the world has ever known’. [58] Maxton wanted ‘a great Empire that shall house and develop a free people ... Our only objection is that it is too limited’. [59]

Rebutting Communist Party criticisms, Wheatley wrote: ‘It may be very nice to list a series of idealistic abstractions, but these cut no ice ... Whatever we think of [Empire], our duty as members of the Labour Movement is to see how we can utilise it to serve our purposes.’ [60] International solidarity was replaced by fear of foreign imports. He wrote: ‘I would use the navy, were I in power, to sink the ship that brought from abroad the product of sweated labour to reduce the standard of life here.’ [61] The end of this reformist odyssey was racism: ‘It was necessary to end that state of affairs where “the Coolies are busy, the Britishers are at the Buroo [the dole office]”.’ [62]

Wheatley represented the most extreme of the ‘official’ Labour left. He simply pressed the extraordinary contradictions of capitalist/worker ideology to their limit when trying to think his way through to socialism.

Needless to say MacDonald was going to have nothing to do with ‘flashy futilities’ like ‘Socialism in Our Time’. ‘These tactics will never be pursued ... and that’s that’. [63] The wordy Reports, the carefully thought-out pamphlets, the Commissions – all crumbled into dust.

In 1928, with the labour movement in precipitate decline after the General Strike and MacDonald riding high, Maxton took a desperate step, going over the head of the ILP National Administrative Council to issue Our Case for a Socialist Revival with A.J. Cook of the miners. This manifesto was the prelude to a national campaign. It was Maxton’s grandest gesture, also his most disastrous. Not only did the independent action of its chairman threaten to rip the ILP apart, but the packed launch meeting in Glasgow flopped. For Willie Gallacher it was ‘The saddest meeting I ever saw’, [64] while on the platform John Wheatley, ‘with a face eloquent of disgust, drew from his waistcoat pocket the substantial cheque he’d written for the campaign funds and carefully tore it into little pieces.’ [65]

The deflating effect of the meeting was due to the manifesto’s lack of realism. It called for rapid and substantial change, but the campaign was clearly directed at gingering up the existing Labour Party rather than providing any alternative:

It was on the one hand far too soft and centrist to have a long-term survival, and on the other hand it was far too little to have an immediate impact. One can make use of a little axe that is sharp, or a massive axe that is blunt. But what can one do with a little axe that is blunt? [66]


Poplarism was the one glimmer of light in the gloom of the left inside the Labour Party during the 1920s. It showed the difference between the struggle for reforms and reformism.

Poplarism was dominated by George Lansbury. He was active in London’s East End from the turn of the century, and as early as 1905 Poplar was ‘notorious’ for unemployment schemes. Soon Lansbury and his associates gained an influence on the council and on the boards of guardians that administered unemployment relief.

Mass post-war activity had an impact on this part of London. In 1919 this combined with the grassroots involvement of Poplar leaders in the unions to help give Labour its first majority in the Borough Council elections. [9*] The councillors’ aim was summed up by Lansbury: ‘The workers must be given tangible proof that Labour administration means something different from Capitalist administration, and in a nutshell this means diverting wealth from wealthy ratepayers to the poor.’ [67] To this end the councillors raised unemployment allowances as well as council employees’ wages. Casual employment in the docks meant Poplar was already a deprived area, and so that the cost of raising allowances and wages did not fall on the workers locally, the councillors demanded ‘equalisation’ of rates across London. Rich boroughs would have to assist their poorer brethren. To force this policy on Lloyd George’s unwilling government, the councillors withheld their contribution to police, asylum and county council funds.

In September 1921 thirty councillors were jailed for their action. They were freed after a six-week campaign which revealed what was unique about Poplarism:

the day after their release, 2,000 enthusiastic supporters crowded into Bow Baths to cheer their councillors, while an overflow meeting of another 2,000 had to be held outside in Roman Road. That weekend there was a ‘monster demonstration’ in Victoria Park to welcome them home. [68]

This mass support had been built by consistent work. Noreen Branson’s excellent history shows how the original proposal to break the law was thrashed out at a conference of local trade union branch representatives. There followed a series of ‘well-filled public meetings’. The final Council meeting before the arrests saw the town hall besieged by supporters ‘packing the alleyways and [standing] on the window sills. Outside [were] some 6,000 people who could not get in.’

Ten thousand people followed the women councillors to their jail. A rent and rate strike was prepared by a many-thousand-strong Tenants’ Defence League. Two other left-wing councils decided to follow Poplar into illegality and action spread: ‘marches by the unemployed demanding “work or maintenance”, deputations to boards of guardians and clashes with the police were reported from many areas.’ The TUC Conference gave support.

Herbert Morrison, who led London’s Labour Party, did his best to isolate and destroy Poplarism, but even he was forced to plead with the prime minister to do something:

a sheer lack of faith in the whole of the institutions of State ... is growing among those bands of hungry desperate men ... Sir. I say there is a distinct tendency in that direction which is dangerous to National Government and to Local Government. [69]

In the end the government had to give way, freeing the councillors and equalising London’s rates. The tangible result was a fall in Poplar’s death rate. In 1918 it had stood at 22.7 per 1,000 people; in 1923 this had halved to 11.3. Over the same period infant mortality fell from 106 to 60, which despite Poplar’s social deprivation was the lowest rate for the 95 largest towns in Britain. [70]

The councillors’ determination to withstand prison until victorious, marked these events as exceptional in Labour’s history. Local government could be more than just a platform. There is a potential contradiction between the national state, whose prime function lies inthe deployment of ‘armed bodies of men’ to defend the ruling class, and local governmentwhich has a service function. The Comintern had recognised this when it passed a resolution which, though clearly designed for different circumstances, had a bearing on Poplar:

Should the Communists receive a majority in the local government, institutions, it is their duty to take the following measures:

  1. form a revolutionary opposition to fight the bourgeois central authority;
  2. aid the poorer sections of the population in every possible way (economic measures, the organization or attempted organization of armed workers’ militias etc.);
  3. expose, at every opportunity, the obstacles which the bourgeois state power places in the way of fundamental social change;
  4. launch a determined campaign to spread revolutionary propaganda, even if it leads to conflict with the state power;
  5. under certain circumstances, replace the local government bodies with Soviets of workers’ deputies. [71]

Poplarism was very different from the long tradition of ‘gas and water socialism’ practised by many Labour Parties under Fabian guidance. This had envisaged the creation of ‘municipalised’ industries – public transport and so on, as a step towards ‘nationalisation’. The emancipation of the working class or local government as a base to attack central government played no part. The key concern was efficiency in the provision of services.

Poplar’s councillors did not substitute themselves for action, they led it. Between 1919 and 1923 the masses were not used as a means to win council seats and then protect them. The councillors saw their role as serving the workers’ movement. They had, unfortunately, an Achilles heel.

Until 1924 the activities of the Poplar Labour Party were not hindered by the general reformist beliefs they undoubtedly held. But the first Labour government presented Poplar with a dilemma. This should have been the opportunity Poplar needed to consolidate its gains and extend its methods nationally through legislation. Naturally the councillors expected John Wheatley’s assistance – for not only was he the most left-wing member of the cabinet but as minister of health, responsible for local government. Alas, Wheatley did no more than cancel a surcharge which his Tory predecessor had imposed but never dared enforce.That was all.He assured his cabinet colleagues:

I have expressed no opinion whatever in regard ... to Poplar ... I explicitly decline to do so and carefully avoided any indication of either sympathy or the reverse ... The motion tabled by the Liberal Party suggested that the rescission of the Poplar order is calculated to encourage illegality and extravagance. My answer is that you are much more likely to encourage illegality by keeping alive a statutory order which you cannot enforce ... The Government means to carry out the law as they find it ... and has no intention whatever of encouraging or allowing lax administration. [72] [10*]

The Poplar activists had to admit that Wheatley had done nothing positively to assist them: ‘Mr Wheatley’s action did not give fresh powers to Guardians or ... afford new opportunities for the exploitation of public funds by the Socialists. Guardians all over the country are still liable to surcharge.’ [74] As a final humiliation it was stated: ‘The Poplar Board ... know that in Mr Wheatley they have a Health Minister who ... will understand and sympathise with them in the horrible problem of poverty.’ [75]

The Labour government prepared the downfall of Poplarism. In April 1925, during the very week Labour won every seat on the Poplar Board of Guardians, Poplarism collapsed. Its £4 minimum wage policy caved in to a ruling in the House of Lords and the council agreed to introduce pay cuts.

What happened in Poplar in 1925 was a sorry contrast to 1921. When the courts had been used previously the local mass movement had been involved in direct defiance and widersections were drawn in. But in 1925 Lansbury put his hopes in parliamentary action. He addressed MacDonald and Thomas, avowed enemies of Poplarism, begging them for help, to no avail. The municipal workers eventually decided to strike to defend their wages. As the local press reported, all departments came out, but ‘at 3 p.m. George Lansbury accompanied by Councillors and Trade Union officials arrived and as a result the strike was called off some three hours later.’ [76] In Lansbury’s Labour Weekly we read that after hearing their MP: ‘They realized that a strike in Poplar would be a strike against themselves, and only their own flesh and blood would suffer.’ Presumably their flesh and blood were unaffected by wage cuts.

The parliamentary graveyard had claimed its latest victim. Reformism had killed the struggle for reforms.

The balance sheet

If we try to draw up a balance sheet for Labour’s official left at the end of the 1920s the result is depressing. Apart from the local episode of Poplarism, which the Labour government ended, there had been a lot of ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’.

First there were the Clydesiders and their ILP. In 1919 Clydeside workers had indeed struck terror in the hearts of the upper class during the forty-hours’ strike and put the king in ‘a funk about the labour situation’. [77] But Wheatley and the other MPs elected in 1922 were but the palest reflection of that earlier militancy. Wertheimer noticed that scenes in the Commons had little effect:

Both Conservatives and Liberals refused to recognise these foibles as expressions of the class war and regarded them as nothing more than a rather sympathetic eccentricity. In the same way James Maxton enjoys a popularity on the ‘other side of the House’ and in the capitalist dailies that stands in striking contrast to his fanatical extremism. [78]

A recent history concludes:

It all made for colourful Press Coverage. Red Clydeside had left the streets and sat in Parliament. But the Press of 1919 had registered genuine panic at the Bolsheviks of George Square; the Press from 1922 offered no more than condescending indulgence to Maxton and Kirkwood. From the beginning the Scottish rebels were treated as colourful curiosities and not as threats to public order. [79]

The Clydesiders were just part of the picture. Could not a united left wing have done better? There had in fact been a left wing formed in 1925, which included all the prominent figures, partly to counter the challenge from the Communist Party. As well as the Clydesiders, there were important people such as Marion Phillips, Susan Lawrence, George Lansbury and John Scurr. The last two were heroes of Poplarism. The evolution of this left wing was described by John Scanlon, a Clydeside socialist writing just after the collapse of the 1929–31 Labour government:

Dr. Phillips is one of the staunchest defenders of the Labour Government’s Anomalies Bill [to disqualify certain unemployed claimants]. Miss Susan Lawrence ... was the first person to ‘tick off’ Mr. Wheatley when he dared to criticise the Government. Mr. George Lansbury ... framed the rules which finally expelled Mr. Maxton ... Mr. John Scurr ... was the first judge appointed to try Mr. Maxton each time Mr. Maxton tried to carry out ... the programme approved by Mr. Scurr in 1925. That was the rebel group of 1925.

Scanlon then added the epitaph which should be inscribed on the tombstones of successive generations of Labour left-wingers: ‘Was it not that nature sometimes tempers a keenness of politics with a sense of humour, suicide would be the only alternative of the disillusioned Socialists.’ [80]

A contrast: The revolutionary struggle for reforms

Our criticism of the Labour Party is not solely that Labour can never bring socialism, but that for most of the time it is an obstacle to the struggle for reforms.The Labour Party sets out to work within an enemy institution, the capitalist state. This is a hostile environment. But the path it chooses is not the only one available: there is another way of fighting within enemy institutions which contrasts strongly with the British experience. This was demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in Russia before the revolution of 1917.

Under Tsarism the Bolsheviks had only the most limited opportunities for legal activity, yet made expert use of them. Elections themselves became occasions for mass action. When, in 1912, the authorities disqualified some of the electorate a strike movement immediately began which involved 70,000 people, forcing the government to back down and organise new elections. [81]

The Clydesiders treated the Glasgow electorate as a stage army whose task was completed once their MPs boarded the train at St Enoch’s Station. Parliamentary scenes were supposed to be the real force for change. The Bolshevik deputies saw scenes in the Russian parliament, the Duma, as a catalyst for struggle outside. When a deputy was prosecuted for sedition, the entire Social Democratic group (Mensheviks and Bolsheviks) protested and were suspended; 72,000 workers in St Petersburg and 25,000 in Moscow came out on strike. A reactionary newspaper gave the deputies the following magnificent compliment:

very close connections have been established between the deputies and the workers ... every speech in the Duma arouses a response among 200,000 workers. All live questions in working-class circles are immediately re-echoed from the Duma rostrum, whence the Social-Democrats censure the government and still farther excite the ignorant masses.

At the same time all utterances of the Social-Democratic deputies are taken up by the workers. The objectionable obstruction in the Duma organised by the Social-Democrats as a protest against their arrogance being curbed, entailed a mass strike. [82]

The Tsarist Duma, packed by reactionaries elected through a rigged voting system and deprived of any power by an autocratic state, became a powerful weapon, not to change Russia, to be sure, but to raise the combativity of the working class.

Labour’s official left in the 1920s made virtually no impact within parliament or the party. Its belief that Labour was the instrument to achieve socialism also precluded it from serious work outside. The far tinier forces of the Communist Party, which lacked decades of history and hundreds of MPs, were not bound by the same limitations. Through its agitation inthe collective organisations of the class it made a real contribution to the crucial event of the 1920s, the General Strike.


1*. The SDF had never posed the important questions for revolutionary socialists confronting the Labour Party because it always had a sectarian concept of Marxism.

2*. But the organisation was undergoing a transformation wrought by the 1918constitution. The closer the Labour Party came to actually holding office, the more a centralised political party with its own distinct and exclusive ideology grew up to impose discipline.

As long as Communists understood affiliation as just a tactic it did not lead to a compromising of their politics. But if membership of the Labour Party became an end in itself, then pressure to conform would threaten revolutionary principles.

3*. Tactics appropriate to parties may not be suitable for minuscule groups. Lenin’s stress on the ‘masses’ and the ‘class’ showed that he was thinking in terms of party: not group, strategy.

There have been occasions when the extreme weakness of the revolutionary left has necessitated different tactics. Thus Trotskyists in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the Socialist Review Group (the precursor of the Socialist Workers Party) used ‘entrism’ inside the Labour Party. This did not involve a public declaration of revolutionary intent, or insistence on official recognition of the right to free criticism and organisational autonomy. Such entrism had to be recognised as a tactic imposed by great weakness. As soon as it had seized the purpose of helping revolutionaries to stand on their own feet, entrism had to be abandoned. As a long-term policy it could only lead to absorption by the reformist milieu or the abandonment of genuine class struggle (which has always been outside the confines of the Labour Party organisation). [12]

4*. But although it acted as a capitalist party it was not ‘a third capitalist party’ (as the Communist Party in its ultra-left phase after 1928 called it). For Labour still retained links with the trade unions and was considered to be the workers’ political party in the minds of millions. A capitalist workers’ party is the only correct description.

5*. The soviet type of organisation is the only one which can solve the problem of workers’ democratic control of power. It is able to do so because its delegates are elected from workplaces and therefore subject to permanent collective control. The parliamentary constituency offers no such basis.

6*. In comparison, the massive trade unions battalions, which controlled conference and financed 101 MPs, were rewarded with only seven cabinet members.

7*. Maxton was not averse to using the Communist bogey as a justification for ILP style reformism, as his parliamentary speech on How to Avoid a Communist Crash shows: ‘We on these benches ... think that the crash ... may be avoided if all sections of this House rise to a sense of that ideal and are able to say not merely that they have sympathy, but that they can produce each year tangible evidence ... We want to join with every well-disposed person in the House who is prepared to avoid this crash. [48]

8*. John Wheatley, the intellectual leader of the group, impressed many contemporaries. Mosley (at that time a left-wing Labour MP) described him as the only man of Lenin quality the English Left has ever produced’. [51] Wheatley believed that setting an example of simple living and moral rectitude could prevent degeneration. Thus he moved a motion at the 1923 ILP Conference to ban MPs from attending social dinners. It was passed by 93 votes to 90 (although dinners with the king were excluded from the resolution since he was above politics and therefore no political risk). [52]

9*. Of the 30 councillors who later went to jail, nearly half were or had been lay officials in their unions.

10*. Naturally Wheatley’s explicit refusal to express sympathy evaporated as soon as he was in opposition and he was no longer in a position to do anything. Opening a block of flats in the area in 1925 he said that ‘The Poplar Borough Council in many respects was a great pioneer in the work of social emancipation, and it was only as the policy of Poplar permeated the country that they would march towards a different order of society’. [73]


1. William McLaine speaking at the Second Comintern Congress, in The Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. 2 (London 1978), p. 181.

2. Communist Unity Convention, London, 31 July 1920, pp. 39–40.

3. The Socialist, 6 May 1920.

4. Lenin, On Britain, pp. 462–3.

5. Lenin, On Britain, p. 461.

6. Lenin, On Britain, p. 450.

7. Lenin, On Britain, p. 424.

8. Lenin, On Britain, p. 399.

9. Lenin, On Britain, p. 449 (emphasis added).

10. Labour Party National Executive Committee Minutes, 30 June 1914.

11. Duncan Hallas, Revolutionaries and the Labour Party, International Socialism 2 : 16 (Spring 1982), p. 4.

12. For an excellent discussion of this, see Duncan Hallas in International Socialism 2 : 16.

13. V.I. Lenin,On Britain, (Moscow 1973), p. 398.

14. Lenin, p. 401.

15. Lenin, p. 415.

16. Lenin, p. 401.

17. This letter, dated 10 August 1920 and signed by Arthur MacManus and Albert Inkpin, Chairman and Secretary of the Communist Party respectively, is included in the Labour Party’s NEC Minutes.

18. The votes at the last three were 3,086,000 to 261,000; 2,880,000 to 366,000 and 3,185,000 to 193,000 respectively.

19. Details in R. Stewart, Breaking the Fetters (London 1967) pages 115–119, and J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (London 1968), pp. 182–4.

20. The Communist, 12 August 1922.

21. Details from a letter by MacManus of 21 December 1923 to a provincial Communist which was intercepted by the Secret Services and cited in Report on Revolutionary Organisations in Cabinet Papers, Cab 24(165) CP 5(24).

22. Workers’ Weekly, 8 February 1924.

23. B. Webb, Diaries, Vol. 3, p. 46 (entry for 19 December 1924).

24. Introduction to the Left Wing Programme as adopted by the Second Annual Conference on 24–25 September 1927, in Towards a Labour Government (no place or date of publication), p. 15.

25. D. Hallas, The Comintern (London 1985), p. 66.

26. Report of the Seventh Congress of the CPGB, 30 May–1 June 1925 (no place of publication).

27. The Reds and the Labour Party: Towards a Left Wing Policy (published by the Communist Party, London, no date), p. 19.

28. The Reds and the Labour Party, p. 23.

29. Labour Monthly, Vol. 7 (January–December 1925), p. 581.

30. Communist International, No. 9, pp. 12–13.

31. There is no space here to discuss this point, but it has been dealt with in T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and the Trade Union Struggle, pp. 41–56.

32. Cliff and Glucksein, p. 145.

33. Communist International, No. 9 (Summer 1925), p. 16.

34. Communist International, No. 9, p. 13.

35. Communist International, No. 9, p. 12.

36. Labour Monthly, Vol. 6 (July–December 1924), p. 662.

37. Labour Monthly, Vol. 7 (1925), p. 202.

38. Tenth Communist Party Congress (London 1929), p. 21.

39. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2 (London 1974), pp. 241–2.

40. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, pp. 57–8.

41. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, p. 248.

42. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, pp. 118–9.

43. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, p. 119.

44. Wertheimer, pp. 115–6.

45. Dowse, p. 115 (emphasis added).

46. Quoted in McKenzie, p. 371.

47. Joint Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party and the National Administrative Council of the ILP, 23 May 1925, in Labour Party NEC Minutes.

48. Hansard, 26 June 1924.

49. Kirkwood, pp. 191–2.

50. McAllister, p. 114.

51. Quoted in R. Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London 1975), p. 169.

52. ILP London Conference, April 1923, p. 143.

53. Quoted in Middlemas, p. 129.

54. J.A. Hobson, The Ethics of Industrialism, in E. Stanton Coit (ed.), Ethical Democracy (London 1900), p. 106.

55. Quoted in New Leader, 1 October 1926.

56. New Leader, 24 December 1926.

57. New Leader, 28 May 1925.

58. Forward, 5 September 1925.

59. Quoted in Forward, 13 March 1926.

60. Sunday Worker, 21 June 1925.

61. Quoted in Howell, A Lost Left (Manchester 1986), p. 275.

62. Quoted in Howell, A Lost Left, p. 256.

63. Quoted in McAllister, pp. 191–2.

64. Quoted in Middlemas, p. 221.

65. J. Paton, Left Turn! (London 1936), p. 303.

66. T. Cliff, The Tragedy of A.J. Cook, in International Socialism 2 : 31 (Spring 1986), pp. 100–101.

67. Labour Monthly, Vol. 2, January–June 1922, p. 388.

68. N. Branson, Poplarism, 1919-1925 (London 1979), p. 102.

69. Quoted in Branson, p. 86.

70. Details in East End News, 23 May 1925, and E. Lansbury, Poplarism (London 1924), p. 3.

71. Theses Resolutions and Manifestos of the Four Congresses of the Third International (London 1980), p. 101.

72. Cabinet Papers, CP 114(24).

73. Lansbury, p. 6.

74. Lansbury, p. 8.

75. Quoted in Branson, p. 215.

76. East London Advertiser, 13 June 1925.

77. Cabinet discussion quoted in Rosenberg, p. 31.

78. Wertheimer, p. 79.

79. I. McLean, The Legend of Red Clydeside (Edinburgh 1983), p. 204.

80. J. Scanlon, The Decline and Fall of the Labour Party (London 1932), pp. 92–3.

81. A.Y. Badayev, The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma (London 1987), p. 35.

82. Quoted in Badayev, p. 155.

Last updated on 2 March 2017