John McIlroy

Henry Thomas William Sara (1886-1953): Industrial Unionist, Anarchist, Communist, Trotskyist

Source: Keith Gilbert and David Howell (eds), Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume 11, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2003, copyright © Professor John McIlroy. Reproduced here with the permission of Professor John McIlroy. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Henry Sara was born on 24 August 1886 at 51 Essex Street, Islington, London, the son of John Henry Sara, a draper’s assistant from Falmouth, Cornwall, and his second wife, Amy Maude Sara, née Smith. Sara had little formal education and from an early age worked in an ironmongery store after school. In the early years of the twentieth century he was employed as a glassblower, as a process block-maker and for six years as a brewery engineer. He also worked in a property office and as a cinema projectionist. Like most working-class socialists of his generation he was self-taught; more unusually, he was intellectually self-reliant. From boyhood he was an omnivorous reader. He took a keen interest in labour history, popular science, Darwinism and the literature of free thought and secularism. He devoured the plays of Shaw and the novels of Eugene Sue. He studied everything he could lay his hands on in connection with telepathy, theosophy, spiritualism and the supernatural. He delighted in magic, at which he was adept, and was an enthusiast of silent films, boxing and later speedway racing. Throughout his life he was a bibliophile and an avid collector of socialist books and pamphlets.

His first acquaintance with socialist ideas came from Robert Blatchford’s weekly newspaper, Clarion. However, in 1905 he became interested in Indian self-government and began to question Blatchford’s social patriotism, which was confirmed when the Clarion joined HM Hyndman in denouncing the growing ‘German menace’. He met members of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and read its paper, the Socialist, but was critical of its dependence on the American thinker Daniel De Leon and its dogmatic emphasis on the role of the party. Nevertheless he admired De Leon’s economic writings and credited the Socialist’s serialisation in 1908 of Wage Labour and Capital with his initiation into Marxism. He became a partisan of industrial unionism, as propagated by the Advocates of Industrial Unionism, established in August 1907 and animated by the SLP, although formally independent of it. Sara’s socialism was nurtured in the eclectic, ecumenical, libertarian, syndicalist milieu of North London by an invisible college of proletarian autodidacts. He was influenced by Advocates such as Leslie Boyne, an Islington gas worker, and WGE Smith, a local sheet-metal worker, as well as anarchists, particularly the painter Victor Beacham and the turbulent Walthamstow activist Walter Ponder, who congregated in the electrical engineering shop of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta in Upper Street, Islington.

In 1908 Sara joined the Industrial League, which had broken away from the Advocates and taken most of the latter’s London membership. The League opposed SLP control, indeed any connection with political parties in the work of organising workers on industrial lines ‘into one big union’. With EJB Allen as editor of its paper, the Industrialist, and Boyne as General Secretary, it insisted that the economic organisation of workers should take precedence. It declared that it was in principle neither in favour of nor opposed to parliamentary action, but the demonstrative use of parliament should only be discussed after the revolutionary industrial union had been established. Intended to curtail disputation, this formula led to the secession of branches that wanted a decisive anti-parliamentary line.

Sara was a member of the Islington branch. Led by Smith, it attracted up to 200 members to its meetings on subjects such as internationalism, industrial unionism and anarchism, and anti-militarism at the Secular Hall, Essex Road, and organised speakers at Clerkenwell Green, Highbury Corner and Parliament Hill. At the end of 1908 Sara became business manager of the Industrialist. He was responsible for producing and circulating pioneering pamphlets such as AB Elsbury’s Industrial Unionism: Its Principles and Meaning (1909) and Allen’s Revolutionary Unionism (1909). He expanded his international interests, followed syndicalist developments in France and North and South America and studied both Marx and the anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin.

The League held joint meetings with anarchist groups and enrolled anarchists in its ranks, although Ponder was expelled in 1909 for exploiting the organisation for anarchist purposes. It strengthened its constitution to condemn ‘the futility of parliamentary action’ in response to anarchist agitation and the climate of the times. By 1911 the expulsion of Allen and the League’s acceptance of a charter as the British branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (Chicago faction), which opposed De Leon, suggested a loss of élan and independence. Sara’s interest in anarchism was intensified by a growing friendship with its most vigorous British proponent, Guy Aldred, who studied industrial unionism and spoke at league meetings. When the Industrialist was forced to suspend publication in 1912, he offered the League space in his own journal, the Herald of Revolt. Sara assisted Aldred during the ‘Savarkar affair’. When Madanlal Dhingra, a student influenced by the Indian nationalist Vianyak Savarkar, assassinated the political secretary to the Secretary of State for India, the Free India Society’s journal, The Indian Sociologist, was suppressed by the courts. Aldred printed it and suffered imprisonment for his pains. Under Aldred’s influence Sara began to question the centrality of industrial unionism. He terminated his two-year membership of the League and moved into the orbit of the self-styled ‘Minister of the Gospel of Revolt’.

While Sara did not share Aldred’s extravagant declaration that ultimately there was no difference between industrial unionism and orthodox trade unionism, he no longer saw the former as a panacea. He came to believe that organisation was secondary to consciousness. Once propaganda had transformed workers’ consciousness, revolutionary action would follow spontaneously, with direction being provided by local communist propaganda groups if necessary. Capitalism would collapse. Meanwhile strikes, the eight-hour day and industrial unionism were all palliatives and potential distractions. Freed from the tyranny and partiality of party politics, the socialist gospel would embrace all shades of opinion – Marx as well as Bakunin – for Sara subscribed to the view that Marx was an anarchist and that communism means anarchy. He styled himself a communist or Marxian anarchist.

The Herald of Revolt, established by Aldred in 1910, drew on the anarchist tradition and published the writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre. It also reprinted the work of British radicals such as the pioneer of press freedom Richard Carlile, discussed industrial unrest and explored feminism, birth control and sexual politics. It carried reports of the work of local communist groups, played a significant part in the campaign against the deportation of Malatesta in 1912 and relentlessly publicised the connections between HM Hyndman’s stake in the Colt Gun and Carriage Company and his bellicose politics. By 1913 Sara was a prolific contributor and was increasingly involved in editing the paper. He moved from Pentonville Road in Islington to the flat that Aldred shared with his companion, Rose Witcop, in Richmond Gardens, Shepherds Bush. All three believed in sexual equality and free unions. The serious, studious Sara began an affair with Witcop, ‘a tall, pale Jewess, with an oval face and dark, wide luminous eyes... with a grand romantic air, like a Conrad revolutionary’ (Fox, 1930, 54-55).

Rose was the younger sister of Milly Witcop, companion of the German Rudolf Rocker. With Kropotkin in retirement, Rocker was the doyen of metropolitan anarchism. Centred on the clubs in Jubilee Street and Charlotte Street, the journals Freedom and WorkersFriend, Henderson’s ‘Bomb Shop’ and Karl Lahr’s Holborn bookshop, it was a cosmopolitan world in which the Shepherds Bush ménage a trois became a colourful cameo. Aldred’s ‘missions’ strengthened the spread of communist propaganda groups in London and Scotland. Sara was increasingly popular as an open-air propagandist at Finsbury Park, Clapham Common, Putney Embankment and the Grove in Hammersmith, where he spoke on Marxism, revolutionary organisation, the value of the vote, anti-militarism and spiritualism. He gained a reputation for well-researched contributions and as ‘a calm dispassionate debater’ (Howard, 1916, 94).

In 1913 Sara became Secretary of the Revolt League, established to coordinate the activities of the communist groups. Like many such groups its existence was shadowy. Attempts to arrange debates with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Guy Bowman’s Syndicalist League and the Anti-Socialist Union proved unfruitful. More productive was the North London Daily Herald League. Formed the same year, it provided a vibrant meeting place for most of the tendencies on the revolutionary left and Sara became one of its best-known orators.

When the Herald of Revolt was relaunched in June 1914 as the Spur – ‘because the workers need a spur’ – Sara was assistant editor. In its pages he argued the socialist case against the European War: it was a war for profit that would divide workers and provide capitalism with a new lease of life. He produced detailed reports of the activities of the armament combines, and took to task those socialists, notably Hyndman and Kropotkin, who supported the war as well as militant trade unionists who sought to exploit it. The only course of action, he argued, was point-blank refusal to participate in militarism or aid the war effort in any way.

Sara, who was in the front line of the fight for free speech, was arrested and convicted three times in the first weeks of the conflict. On 28 September 1914 Sara – ‘28 years of age, a well-dressed man described as an engineer’ – appeared before the South-West London Police Court. The magistrates were told: ‘When the police removed the speaker Sara jumped on the platform and said to the crowd: “This meeting will continue. The police inspector has no right to stop a public meeting. I'll carry on...” The speaker’s remarks were against the King, the Government and the people.’ (Spur, October 1914) With the introduction of conscription legislation in January 1916 the attitude of the police and patriotic crowds hardened. Sara reinforced his growing reputation for fearlessness, urging the Herald League, whose meetings were being broken up, to resist intimidation. He offered to speak at any place at any time: ‘I think we were all surprised at the change that had occurred in him... he had developed into the passionate orator. Many a time after he had finished speaking I have seen khaki armleteers shamefacedly slip their badges into their pockets and then demonstratively cheer him to the echo.’ (Howard, 1916, 94)

The war engaged Sara fully, emotionally as well as intellectually and at the age of 30 it provided his greatest test. In February 1916 he returned his conscription papers, stating he could not serve because of his socialist opposition to the war. The Hammersmith tribunal held that it had no power to grant exemption for an objection based on political grounds. He was arrested on 3 April, taken before the South-West London Police Court and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment as an unlawful absentee. When he stated that his occupation was public speaker the magistrate told him the sooner his mouth was closed the better. The military authorities refused to allow him to serve his sentence or communicate with friends and he was immediately taken into army custody. Despite poor eyesight he was pronounced medically fit and taken to the Harrow Road Barracks of the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion London Regiment, where he was badly beaten and forcibly dressed in uniform. After refusing to parade he was again beaten, transferred to Hurdcott Camp, court martialled and sentenced to 28 days in Parkhurst Military Prison on the Isle of Wight. Returned to Hurdcott in May, he again refused to obey orders and served a further sentence in Parkhurst.

The case attracted wide publicity. It was raised in the House of Commons by Joseph King, the Liberal MP for North Somerset, and the Labour Party’s Philip Snowden. Harold Tennant, the Liberal Under-Secretary of State for War, promised a report but then announced that reports on individual soldiers could not be provided. Sara was transferred to Wormwood Scrubs and taken before the Central Tribunal, which accepted that as a conscientious objector he was entitled to perform alternative work under the Home Office scheme. As an absolutist who believed that nothing should be done to aid the state, he refused. He was again court martialled in October 1916 and January 1917, when he was sentenced to two years and transferred to Exeter Prison.

He endured his imprisonment stoically – ‘che sara sara’, as he wrote to his friends. A fellow prisoner, RM Fox, recorded with surprise that Sara had developed a sense of humour. He took inspiration from Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and, he insisted, the thousands of nameless Germans who were fighting against the war. His resistance was simple and adamantine: ‘conscience is not to be bargained with’ (Sara, October 1917, 154). He became suspicious of the No Conscription Fellowship’s attempts to play the system and extend exemptions. He felt isolated and at times disheartened: ‘To fight with the minority is always hard, when the odds are against you obstacles seem great, greater perhaps than they are in reality but that is little consolation.’ (Sara, January 1919, 110) He grew worried about his own weakness when, along with other long-term prisoners, he was transferred in September 1918 to Wakefield gaol and offered concessions. But the absolutists remained intransigent. They introduced a system of self-government, affirmed ‘the inviolable rights of conscience’ and refused to accept any work that would facilitate the war.

At the end of his sentence Sara again refused to put on khaki and again endured rough treatment. In an article in the Herald of Revolt he remarked: ‘Two and a half years of bitter struggle’, and at the end a disgusting retort, ‘You are a coward of the deepest hue.’ (Sara, January 1919, 110) In October 1918 he was once more court martialled. It was not until he went on hunger strike in February 1919 that he was finally released, and only then under the Cat and Mouse Act, which enabled the authorities to recall him at any time.

Sara emerged from his ordeal stronger and more self-sufficient. His moral stature was enhanced and he enjoyed a growing reputation in the labour movement. He plunged into propaganda, speaking all over the country for the Herald League, the SLP, the British Socialist Party and, in particular, anarchist groups throughout Scotland and Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) in London. He was an enthusiast for the Russian revolution. Where he had earlier deprecated party organisation, he now considered Pankhurst’s organisation as the germ of a new libertarian, anti-parliamentary communist party. The minute books of the WSF record Sara’s attendance at meetings of the Bow branch in 1919. He was also active in the WSF-influenced East London Workers’ Committee.

In the summer of 1919 a fellow absolutist, Harry Thompson, whom Sara had befriended in Wakefield Gaol, invited him to spend a few weeks at the holiday home of his sister and her businessman husband, Connie and Percy Taylor, at Hawkshead in the Lake District. Their son, the future historian, AJP (Alan) Taylor, later recalled the ‘magnificent open-air orator with a tremendous voice’. He reflected:

Henry Sara talked Marxism all the time... [He] was extremely handsome, despite a wall eye. He was well over six feet tall, with curly black hair and a powerful physique. He had winning ways... Indeed he had already acquired a harem of feminine admirers in London. He now won my mother. She fell passionately, although of course, platonically, in love with Henry Sara and remained in love with him for the rest of her life. (Taylor, 1983, 54)

Connie became a fervent supporter of Sara’s politics. For his part Sara exerted a powerful and to some extent under-acknowledged influence on the young Alan, being instrumental in extending his interest in politics and history and stimulating his brief sojourn in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In turn Percy was always on good terms with Sara and became a militant pillar of the Independent Labour Party in North Lancashire. Thus for Sara it was a happy encounter. Until Connie’s long, final illness in the early 1940s she provided Sara with a home for part of the year, gave him money and bought his suits.

But this lay in the future. What urgently exercised Sara in 1919 was the relationship of the anti-parliamentary, libertarian tradition of socialism from below – in which he had spent a good part of his 33 years – to the Russian revolution and the development of the Third International (Comintern). He interpreted the revolution and its extension by the Comintern through the prism of his own politics, emphasising the centrality of insurrection, workers’ councils and their antagonism towards parliament. He participated in the short-lived Communist League formed in 1919 as a loose amalgam of dissident SLP branches, the WSF and Aldred’s communist groups, whose paper was now entitled The Spur – To Communism. He took another small step towards party when he moved into the orbit of Pankhurst’s Communist Party (British Section of the Third International, BSTI), although there is no evidence that he became a member. He was caught up in the same dilemma as Pankhurst: how to reconcile a passionate belief in the necessity of the Comintern with a profound antipathy to its emerging insistence on parliamentary action and affiliation of its British section to the Labour Party. Like many other communists he pondered whether to give his allegiance to Bolshevism. In the summer of 1920 he was still speaking for the Scottish anarchist groups. Russia – and perhaps their relationship with Rose Witcop – precipitated Sara’s final break with Aldred (Caldwell to author, 7 December 1999). Like most anarchists, Aldred made parliament the litmus test and was increasingly concerned about the strengthening of the state and growing authoritarianism in Russia.

Sara was not yet ready to turn away from what would become the submerged tradition of left-wing communism and embrace ‘official communism’. Prison had made him more careful, cautious and methodical. But despite doubts about its policy he chided critics: ‘If there is not a Communist International very soon, the time is not far distant when there will not be a Soviet Government.’ (Sara, January 1921) He determined to see for himself what the International and the Soviet government were doing. In January 1921, as the CP (BSTI) threw in its lot with the CPGB, he sailed for Russia.

In five hectic months he visited not only Moscow and Leningrad but also Samara, Tashkent and Samarkand. He toured factories, schools and soviets. He spoke with Comintern functionaries, ordinary communists and anarchists, and even unearthed Jacob Miller – ‘Peter the Painter’ of the siege of Sydney Street notoriety. Whether he travelled with or encountered Witcop, who was in Russia in 1921 to raise money for Aldred’s Anti-Parliamentary Federation, remains unclear. But his already intimate relationship with the CPGB was evident in a letter from a party representative in Moscow to the Comintern. It noted that while he had refrained from joining:

There is no question... as to his loyalty to the movement. He was always in great demand as a lecturer by the branches of our organisation. He has given years of work for the cause. His record and influence is such that he would be undoubtedly an acquisition to our forces in Britain. (RGASPI, 495/100/42, Tom Quelch to Kobetsky, 12 April 1921)

In an account written for the Dreadnought on his return to London, Sara evoked the vitality of the revolution, its very real problems and the urgency of international solidarity. His conclusion – despite doubts about the Bolsheviks’ crushing of the sailors’ revolt in Kronstadt in March 1921 and Pankhurst’s ejection from the CPGB in September 1921, which had laid to rest the hope some had held for a left-wing faction – was that sustaining the Russian revolution was the priority for socialists, and that the revolution was best nourished from inside its official representative party. The working-class militancy of 1919-20 was in retreat across Europe, together with illusions of a revolutionary situation arising in Britain. Left communism was waning and, as the next few years would demonstrate, its organisational prospects were brittle. It was as a reluctant recruit who could see no alternative that Sara joined the CPGB in late 1922 or early 1923. Within a few months he was debating with Pankhurst at Essex Hall on the competing virtues of the Third and Fourth Internationals, the left-wing council communist grouping with which Pankhurst was associated (led by the Dutch critic of Lenin, Herman Gorter, and not to be confused with Leon Trotsky’s movement of the same name).

The CPGB made extensive use of Sara as a propagandist. In 1922 he toured the United States and Canada, lecturing on his experiences in the Soviet Union. The following year the CPGB districts urged the branches to engage him to speak on Russia, with the proviso that for open-air meetings he would expect a share of the collection. His hallmark was the lantern lecture, bred of his days in the cinema and facilitated by slides from his travels, which he pioneered while others persevered with chalk and talk. As well as Russia his other specialities were the Lives of Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and the revolution in China. He also lectured widely on Marxism, labour history and current politics. His other significant arena was the National Council of Labour Colleges, a passion that united the extended Taylor family: Connie became secretary of the Preston Labour College, later the North Lancashire Labour College, while Percy lectured and wrote in the NCLC journal, Plebs, on the cotton industry. As the 1920s wore on, Alan commenced lecturing with Sara and defended the Comintern against Raymond Postgate in Plebs. Sara was in demand as a tutor and often spent most of the winter season at the Taylors’ Preston home, taking classes in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Two or three times a year Connie would visit London, where Sara would take her to the theatre and restaurants at her expense. In 1924 the couple, accompanied by Alan, toured France and Germany, where they encountered a wide variety of politicians although the highlight was a performance by the great clown Grock. In 1925 the trio travelled across Russia, meeting Kamenev and Litvinov, hearing Zinoviev speak and returning with their dedication to the Soviet experiment refreshed and reinforced.

Sara was a member of the CPGB’s St Pancras branch and then from 1925 the Tottenham and Wood Green local branch. He was also a member of the Hornsey Labour Party and sat on its Executive Committee from 1924 until he was expelled in 1926. He was a popular CPGB member and was active in party causes and a periodic contributor to its press, although he always regretted the fact that he never wrote as well as he spoke. He was a member of the Central Agit-Prop Committee, but he was on the whole, on a long leash. In 1925, for example, he was elected to the London District Committee but was excused service because of his other commitments. He could be a difficult customer and was enduringly critical of many in the leadership for their activities before and during the war, for he never accepted that militancy was a substitute for anti-militarism. In 1932 Willie Gallacher, whom he had always valued lightly, opined that Sara had never been a Communist. He was certainly never a Communist in the sense that Gallacher was as he never absorbed Bolshevisation, still less Stalinism. Rather he maintained a sturdy intellectual independence. He held himself aloof from involvement in the burgeoning machine, particularly after he was asked to keep an eye on former anarchist comrades Charlie and Esther Lahr, who had left the party in the early 1920s. Nonetheless he became a well-known figure in the CPGB:

I was aware of his history and his deep interest in the labour movement... and he was quite unusual, even though he was an orthodox Communist for a whole period. He had an unusual interest in the Trotskyist movement. He was one of the few people, I'd never seen anyone before, who had a little tiny button, which he got on one of his trips to Russia in 1921 or 1922 with a photograph of Trotsky in it. It was the only one I'd seen. He also had a sculpture by Claire Sheridan of Trotsky. (Wicks interview with Richardson)

All in all Sara was an austere figure and was perceived even by Communists who shared his working-class background as ‘an intellectual’ (Dowdall interview with Richardson), one whose outsiderism suited the leadership as well as himself. In 1926 he spoke all over the country during the miners’ lockout, sharing platforms with Arthur Cook. The following year he was despatched by way of Moscow and Vladivostok to represent the CPGB at the Fifth Congress of the Chinese Party – held at Hankow in April-May 1927 – in order to permit Tom Mann, who was on a Red International of Labour Unions delegation to China, to represent the Minority Movement. In China he saw at first hand the consequences of Stalin’s and Bukharin’s subordination of the Chinese party to the Kuomintang and its disastrous and stubbornly sustained misreading of Chiang Kai-Shek. He would later complain bitterly about the Russians’ attempt to scapegoat the party leader, Chen Duxiu, who had simply executed their policy. However, speaking as a delegate to the CPGB’s Ninth Congress in Salford in October 1927, he was critical only of those party members who failed to understand the importance of China to world revolution.

Sara was one of 25 CPGB candidates in the May 1929 General Election, standing in Tottenham South. He faithfully elaborated the new ‘Third Period’ line that capitalist crisis and working-class radicalisation had transformed Labour into the third capitalist party, hermetically sealed from proletarian pressure, and demanded a revolutionary workers’ government. He paid the price and lost his deposit. The seat was won by his old comrade in the Herald League, the Islington French polisher Fred Messer.

Tottenham South, 1929: electorate – 45,970, turnout – 67.5 per cent

F Messer (Labour) – 14,423 (46.4 per cent)

PB Malone (Conservative) – 9,701 (31.3 per cent)

W Stonestreet (Liberal) – 6,407 (20.7 per cent)

HTW Sara (Communist) – 490 (1.6 per cent)

Majority – 4,722 (15.1 per cent)

Perhaps the New Line stirred the old Sara, revived his leftism and fanned his resentment of labour fakirs and what he saw as men on the make. He contributed titbits to the Daily Worker that paid off old scores against the ex-ILP absolutist Clifford Allen and the ex-SLP impossibilist EE Hunter. But as he demonstrated when rebuking the CPGB novelist Harold Heslop for employing denunciation rather than textual criticism to dismantle Postgate in the Communist, he was essentially a man of argument, exactitude and tolerance. As such he cannot have been happy with Stalin’s proscription of Luxemburg in 1931 or the British leadership’s witch-hunting of the ideas of Arthur Horner, JT Murphy, Maurice Dobb and Tommy Jackson between 1930 and 1932.

On his way to China Sara had become embroiled in an obscure argument with Petrovsky, the Comintern representative in Britain, over trade-union policy. His first real brush with the party leadership, however, came in 1930 when, as part of the work of discrediting the fallen Bukharin, his differences with Lenin were magnified by the Russian leaders and their national epigones. Nonetheless Sara provided the Communist Review with a positive estimation of the new British edition of Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy. When it was unfavourably reviewed in the Daily Worker he wrote to the paper contradicting Hugo Rathbone’s verdict that there was a fundamental antagonism between Lenin and Bukharin over imperialism. The leadership switched the controversy to the Communist Review and encouraged Rathbone to expand and ‘sharpen’ his response to Sara and discredit his original piece. The real point in this engagement between the proletarian autodidact who remembered the past and respected truth and the orthodox, bourgeois intellectual who reflected the present power-struggles in the USSR, was the fundamental antagonism Stalin felt towards Bukharin. Lenin had never regarded the very real differences he had with Bukharin as sufficient to merit his silencing, stigmatisation or exclusion, indeed he had contributed a commendatory introduction to the first edition of the book, which until 1929 was generally accepted as a classic Bolshevik text. But Bukharin’s approach and, Rathbone suggested, Sara’s, was no longer permissible in the evolving Stalinist order.

Sara read Trotsky, studying not only earlier works such as Where Is Britain Going? but also ‘The Draft Programme of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals’, published in English in January 1929. He found the ‘Third Period’ claim that the Labour Party, ILP and trade-union leaders were going over to fascism disturbing and unsustainable. The new leadership was proving no better than the old in reversing the party’s fading fortunes. His belief, which had solidified in 1921-22, that the leaders of the Comintern and the CPGB could take the world revolution forward was foundering. He was still considered sufficiently acceptable to be sent to Vienna in August 1931 on behalf of the Friends of the Soviet Union, although he was arrested and deported from Austria. By that time he was a member of the opposition group led by Reg Groves and Stewart Purkis. He met them in 1929 and gradually strengthened his involvement, although it was only in 1932, when he moved from Crouch End to South-West London, that he became a member of the Balham group of the party. Groves later recalled Sara’s ‘eloquent, resonant voice and a commanding platform manner, incisive, informed in debate and discussion’, he ‘brought much to us in the way of knowledge of Marxism, socialist theory and labour history. His critical faculty had been toughened by early associations with anarchist ideas and the stricter industrial unionist groups, by his experience during the 1914-18 war.’ (Groves, 1974, 19-20)

The group’s ideas were disparate, to a degree contradictory and certainly still evolving. Opposition to the leadership’s ‘right-wing’ resistance to the Comintern line in 1929 gave way to resentment about the Comintern’s disastrous dictation and its espousal of ‘socialism in one country’ by 1931. Their belief that the new leadership of the CPGB was missing opportunities and their concern about the parlous state of the party was sustained. But their continued advocacy of ‘Third Period’ nostrums, such as the priority of organising in the workplace as opposed to organising in the trade unions, coexisted uneasily with their newly-acquired support for the united front, which had been stimulated by their experience of working with the ILP in South London and by studying Trotsky’s writings on Germany. Meetings with Trotsky’s emissaries Albert Glotzer and Max Shachtman produced only limited clarification of their politics, which in early 1932 remained at some distance from the conceptions of the International Left Opposition.

Sara’s pivotal confrontation with the CPGB leadership was characteristically bound up with his revulsion at its ‘unreal propaganda and cheap demagogy’. On 20 March 1932, when he was speaking at the St Pancras branch on the ‘war danger’, that had obsessed the party for the previous five years, he held up the previous day’s Daily Worker, which blazoned and attempted to justify the headline ‘The World War Has Begun’. He ‘asked his audience what sort of reply would be received were he to go down into the street and ask the passers-by whether they were aware that “world war has begun"?’ (Sara, 1939, 4) Party leader Harry Pollitt received a report of Sara’s speech and observed on behalf of the Political Bureau (PB): ‘This opportunist poison must be plucked out of the Party and all who disseminate it ruthlessly fought as objectively helping the war preparation of the imperialists by the doubts and confusions they create in the Party.’ (Daily Worker, 6 April 1932)

Sara was now a marked man. The Secretariat wrote to him asking for clarification of his comments. He retorted that they had already been sufficiently apprised about what he had said to denounce him demagogically and requested a copy of the report on which they had based their condemnation. In protracted correspondence he defied their instruction to put what he had said into writing. At the PB there was discussion of his expulsion, concern about the platform that his NCLC work provided and, when the Communist (anonymously circulated by the Balham group) appeared in May with a reprint of Trotsky’s Germany: The Key to the International Situation, suspicion that Sara was involved. Two stormy South London aggregates and a confused meeting between the London District Committee, Bill Rust from the leadership and the Balham group failed to resolve matters.

The affair moved to a close in August when, in response to a request to discuss the German situation, Groves, Sara and Harry Wicks were invited to meet the London District Secretary, RW Robson. Instead they were confronted by Pollitt, Gallacher and Kay Beauchamp. Sara’s prompt exit, explaining that he had been invited to meet Robson not Pollitt, provided a stay of execution. While Groves and Wicks were expelled, he escaped with suspension. The respite was brief. On 8 September 1932 he was expelled from the CPGB for membership of ‘an Anti-Party grouping’. The letter of dismissal stated that the final straw was the publication in the September issue of Plebs of his extended, laudatory review of the first volume of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Sara was aware that Pollitt was trying to avoid publicity about Trotskyism in the party: ‘The article in Plebs was written deliberately (by arrangement with the Editor) as a challenge to the Communist Party – which I knew would lead to my expulsion, so that the membership could be made aware of the grounds of my expulsion.’ (MRC MSS15B/3/S, Sara to W Hill, 12 August 1941) His exit from the party was as calculated as his entrance.

In Trotskyism he sought a purer Marxism, based on a united front of working-class parties, political transformation in Russia and world revolution. He supported Trotsky’s verdict that its performance in respect of Germany had rendered the Comintern beyond repair. He viewed this as enhancing the argument for developing the British Trotskyist group, the Communist League, as an open organisation, albeit carrying out factional work inside labour movement bodies, including the ILP. He did not share Trotsky’s belief in the potential of the ILP and opposed the International Left Opposition’s advice that the League should enter the ILP en masse. Such an approach, he pointed out, would mean sacrificing the League’s new paper, the Red Flag, withdrawing members from the fruitful work they were still carrying out in the CPGB and putting the group’s future in the dubious hands of the ILP. At the League’s December 1933 conference he successfully moved that wholesale entry be rejected. He argued that Trotsky was more enamoured of the ILP than the tiny Communist League; Trotsky did not adequately appreciate developments in Britain, particularly the difficulty of revolutionary work inside the ILP. The refusal of the minority who supported Trotsky to accept the vote resulted in British Trotskyism’s first split.

In this context, and with the Comintern’s turn towards a united front, depriving the Trotskyists of their best card, his hopes for an independent Communist League evaporated. However there were small successes. When the CPGB and its satellite, the International Labour Defence, refused to campaign over the imprisonment of Chen Duxiu, the former Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who had embraced Trotskyism, Sara was able to draw on the goodwill he had accumulated with Tom Mann during their encounter in Hankow. Mann’s signature on a circular protesting about the imprisonment influenced Jack Tanner, Dick Beech, Alex Gossip, John Jagger and other prominent left-wing trade unionists to add their names to those of James Maxton and Fenner Brockway. Furthermore there was still a trickle of recruits from the CPGB and the ILP. But by early 1934 sales of the Red Flag were in decline and the League was wracked by internal divisions. There was some resentment about the behaviour of Groves, his monopolisation of international contacts and what some saw as his overemphasis on the British dimension. Still advocating independent organisation, Sara was less than impressed by the suggestion that the group prioritise work inside the Labour Party. In May 1934 he resigned from the Communist League.

Unlike most of his comrades Sara had an alternative outlet in the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC). As well as maintaining his base in Lancashire he had become popular in South Wales, where the NCLC organiser and future General Secretary of the Labour Party, Len Williams, helped with the sale of the Red Flag and tweaked Stalinist tails by presenting the best students with copies of Trotsky’s History. Even when CPGB stalwart Charlie Stead succeeded Williams in 1936, he proved unable to resist NCLC General Secretary JPM Millar’s sponsoring of Sara. The latter’s appointment as full-time winter tutor was branded as ‘provocation’ by the party’s Agitprop Committee, which remonstrated forcefully with the hapless Stead.

To the CPGB’s chagrin Sara was able to take Trotskyist politics into the NCLC. Statements such as ‘The June Tutors’ Council meeting listened with interest to Comrade Sara outlining the attitude of the Left Opposition (Trotskyism) and agreed to devote another evening to certain problems which cropped up in discussion’ (Plebs, July 1933, 167) were guaranteed to cause apoplexy in King Street. Throughout the 1930s Sara contributed to Plebs, in restrained, scholarly style, crossing swords on several occasions with fellow proletarian autodidact Tommy Jackson, who was increasingly marginal to the party but its man in the NCLC. But if all this strengthened anti-Stalinism among British workers, it did little to expand organised Trotskyism.

By 1936 Sara had returned to the fold. He was reunited with his old comrades from the Balham group in a looser organisation, the Marxist League, which worked inside the Labour Party and the Socialist League. He rigorously raked through the fictions and fables traducing Trotsky and the mendacities of the Moscow trials, and remarked of Stalin’s attorneys the Pollitts and Pritts, who slavishly justified them: ‘Like the gangs who used to concoct anti-Soviet forgeries with faked documents for circulation in the capitalist press, their work teems with stupid errors.’ (Sara, January 1937, 2) He was one of the tiny band who put all their energy into the Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky in 1936-37. He was on the platform at the handful of big meetings the Committee was able to mount at Essex Hall and the Memorial Hall in Farringdon. He also addressed gatherings of the ILP, NCLC and Left Book Club. He worked with CA Smith, editor of the ILP’s Controversy, priming him with anti-Stalinist ammunition. When the CPGB published a competitor, Discussion, he commented: ‘I find that really amusing. Particularly when one knows that the thing they fear most is discussion and controversy.’ (MRC MSS 15/3/1/63, Sara to Smith, 22 August 1937)

His earlier concerns about the Soviet state had proved prescient. The trials left him with mixed feelings: of vindication – in the trials’ unmasking of the nature of the Stalinism he had escaped – and demoralisation – the sense that for many this was the bleak terminus not only of 1917 but of the entire project of revolutionary socialism. He reflected:

Frame-ups against active revolutionaries in capitalist countries are bad enough but when the frame-ups can be staged in a country where a people have thrown off their oppressors things must be infinitely worse... the harm done to the cause of International Socialism through the Moscow trials of the alleged Trotskyist Zinoviite Terrorist Centre will be felt for many a long day. Its main value – but at what price? – is to expose still more clearly, to all who have the sense to see, what tremendous harm is being done to the working-class movement through the bureaucracy of Stalinism. (Sara, October 1936, 3)

With the majority of the Marxist League, Sara supported the fusion with CLR James’ Marxist Group in the ILP in early 1938. He welcomed the formation of the Fourth International in the autumn of that year, chaired the foundation conference of its affiliate, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), which brought together the majority of British Trotskyists, and served on its Executive. Looking back on what had happened to Communism in the 1930s, on events in Russia and on the Comintern’s role in China, Germany, Spain and Britain, he succinctly observed: ‘Stalinism betrays the revolution, destroys the faith of the workers and makes socialism a mockery.’ (Sara, April 1938, 4)

Thereafter, together with his old comrades from the Balham group, he drifted away from mainstream Trotskyism. Like them, his impatience with ersatz Leninism and revolutionary posturing was enduring. He opposed the war as imperialist, arguing in the Labour Party in South London and in the Royal Arsenal Co-op that the struggle for peace was inseparable from socialist advance. His involvement with Groves and Wicks in the Socialist Anti-War Front, which was criticised as pacifist by most Trotskyists, led to a breach in 1939 with the RSL leadership, around Denzil Harber. Nonetheless he spoke with Fenner Brockway at the Trotsky Memorial Meeting in September 1940, commending Trotsky’s murderers and their apologists, such as JR Campbell, to ‘the execration of humanity’. He was now 54 years of age. He had travelled far from his political roots, but remained faithful to the vision of workers’ self-emancipation and the belief in the power of the word in which he been nurtured. He was captured for posterity at Clapham Common one Sunday morning in 1940, much as he had been in 1914:

... he began with four or five of us around his platform... there was a sizeable crowd around an Economic League speaker. Sara boomed out in measured tones, ‘Travelaars in Indiaah... tell a tale... of Indian fakirs... who... throwing a rope into the air... make it stand the whole length... suspended from nothing.’ In this manner he spoke about mass hypnotism and the Economic League speaker’s attempt to practise it. In five minutes or less he had stripped the audience away from the Economic League and they were gathered around him. (Hunter, 1997, 36-37)

He was still working in the Labour Party, although his bid to become parliamentary candidate for Wimbledon in 1941 proved unsuccessful. Connie Taylor was terminally ill and in May 1942 Sara married Eleanor Pembrook, a Tooting woman 17 years his junior. In the winter of 1941-42 he acted as NCLC tutor for South Wales, and in March 1942 he was appointed to the full-time post of South London divisional organiser, with the brief to develop classes with trade-union bodies and members of the Labour Party and the cooperative movement. Following surveillance of its revolutionary socialist opponents the CPGB recorded that: ‘Henry Sara, ex-Party member and a virulent Trotskyist, is now an NCLC organiser in London. George Phippen, the other London official is very much under his influence and facilitates the work of the Trotskyists as NCLC lecturers.’ (NMLH, CP/CENT/ORG/13/4, Report on Trotskyite Activities, May 1943) But Sara was a teacher, not an organiser, and problems disguised by wartime dislocation emerged into the open as the postwar era dawned. JPM Millar, who was intensely loyal to the Labour government, demanded greater efficiency, a more contemporary, ‘constructive’ approach, more union affiliations and more students in order to win the relentless competition with the state-aided Workers’ Educational Association.

In the face of Sara’s alleged failure to develop courses, Millar claimed that the appointments committee had doubted his capacity as an organiser. He attempted to involve Sara in alternative work: training new tutors and marking correspondence courses, interspersed with periodic reviews of his student figures. Conflicts between organisers and the Stakhanovite Millar were a regular occurrence. But the anti-authoritarian Sara compounded matters by acting defiantly, drumming up support from London NCLC activists and requesting permission to stand for Wandsworth Borough Council. In the face of harassment he hung on, but Millar’s persistence paid off. Despite support from divisional delegations and the Organisers’ Association, he was dismissed in February 1948. At that year’s NCLC conference an emergency motion calling for his reinstatement was ruled out of order on the ground that the dismissal of staff was an administrative issue and beyond the remit of NCLC democracy.

That was Sara’s last battle: his life as an activist was drawing to a close. Connie Taylor, whom he visited to the last, died in 1946. Her son recorded that he and Sara were her only mourners and that the 60-year-old Sara felt that life had finally caught up with him. According to Taylor, Connie had left Sara a small annuity. Nonetheless he was forced to take a poorly-paid post as a temporary Post Office worker. He remained active in Wandsworth Labour Party, kept in touch with British and American Trotskyists and in 1951 and 1952 regularly reviewed books for the ILP’s Socialist Leader. He disparaged Lysenko and his British disciples, excoriated ‘Stalin’s Empire’ and ‘Red Imperialism’, and wrote favourably of Tony Cliff’s early work on Eastern Europe. In the autumn of 1952 he contracted lung cancer. He died aged 67 on 19 November 1953. Most of the mourners at his funeral were members of the Balham group. He left an estate valued at £442 6s 2d.

Sara was representative of the irreconcilable, anti-statist strain in the autodidactic, propaganda-driven tradition of early-twentieth-century socialism, which insisted that workers must secure their emancipation through direct action. He always maintained this position, and unlike many other pre-1914 irreconcilables never succumbed to the imperatives of the burgeoning but degenerating Russian state. He embraced official Communism reluctantly, and when he realised it was a cul-de-sac his deep and direct knowledge of other communisms helped him to find another path. In the midst of wartime martyrdom he complained about how hard it was to fight with the minority – but he always did so. Apart from his years in the CPGB, he stood with the minority of the minority, the real underdogs.

Sara was a Trotskyist when it was hardest to be a Trotskyist: when Trotskyism was weak and persecuted, yet arguably at its most inspiring as a compelling critique of Stalinism at midnight in the century. Even here he was fully an individual: his early years as a syndicalist and anarchist sustained an inherent independence; he was never comfortable in disciplined organisations; and his early self-education taught him to trust his own judgement. In the end he could find no place in the transformed labour movement. He possessed an unbending political rectitude. If, in more personal terms, as Alan Taylor asserted, he exploited his appeal for women he did so, as Taylor also suggested, with a certain innocence and loyally sang for his supper. If at times he felt that the world owed him a living, it was so that he could turn his entire energy to winning the world for the working class.


I: Articles in the Herald of Revolt

‘The Limit’, October 1912

‘Revolution and the Strike’, November 1912

‘What Makes War?’, December 1912

‘Berkman’s Memoirs’, February 1913

‘Theosophy’, ‘The Workers and the War’, March 1913

‘Industrial Unionism’, April 1913

‘Our Policy Stated’, May 1913

‘Fly Away Gill’, June 1913

‘We Must Have Eight’, July 1913

‘Are Strikes Reformist?’, September 1913

‘Are Anti-Socialists Mad?’, October 1913

‘Hyndman’s Confession’, December 1913

‘Blasphemy!’, December 1913

II: Articles in the Spur

‘Daniel de Leon’, June 1914

‘The Luxury of Poverty’, July 1914

‘Most and Tucker’, August 1914

‘Armaments and Profits’, October 1914

‘The War on Nietzsche’, November 1914

‘Behind the War’, December 1914

‘The Two Classes’, February 1915

‘Playing the Game’, April 1915

‘The Present Socialism’, May 1915

‘Sorgue!’, June 1915

‘Below the Surface’, August 1915

‘Notes and Queries’, February 1916

‘The Yellow Streak’, July 1916

‘A Moral Outlook’, October 1917

‘The Wakefield “Concession"? A Diary’, October 1918

‘Recognition’, December 1918

‘Uncowed Conscience’, January 1919

‘The Logic of War’, February 1919

‘A Plaint of Peace’, April 1919

‘They Speak for Themselves’, May 1919

‘The Force of Parliament’, July 1919

‘Direct Action’, August 1919

‘Who Are the Communists?’, January 1921

III: Other Articles

‘The Grief And Glory of Russia’, Workers’ Dreadnought, 23 July, 6, 13, 27 August 1921

‘The March Past’, Communist Review, March 1926

‘The Class War’, Communist Review, April 1926

‘Further Jottings on RW Postgate’, The Communist, May 1928

‘An Anarchist With A Temper’, Sunday Worker, 14 October 1928

‘Dietzgen – The Tanner Who Confounded The Pundits’, Sunday Worker, 9 December 1928

‘New Light on Chartism’, Communist Review, January 1930

‘The Leisure Class’, Communist Review, February 1930

‘About Marx and Engels’, Daily Worker, 15 February 1930

‘The Revolutionist: A Glance at the Past of a Labour Hack’, Daily Worker, 9 April 1930

‘The Stage of Imperialism’, Communist Review, April 1930

‘A Communist Textbook’, Communist Review, May 1930

‘Laying the Ghost of Karl Marx’, Plebs, May 1930

‘Organised Capital: Rathbone Replies to Sara’, Communist Review, September 1930

‘Communist Education’, Daily Worker, 2, 3 October 1931

‘Trotsky and the Russian Revolution’, Plebs, September 1932

‘Trotsky on the Revolution’, Plebs, May 1933

‘William Gallacher: Notes for Autobiography’, Red Flag, June 1936

‘The Deportation of Mrs Muhsam’, Red Flag, September 1936

‘Trotsky’s Traducers’, Red Flag, October 1936

‘The Novosibirsk Trial’, Red Flag, January 1937

‘Behind the Popular Front’, Red Flag, March 1937

‘Marxism and MacDonaldism’, Plebs, March 1937

‘Maxim Gorky, Lenin and Trotsky’, Red Flag, May 1937

‘Needs or Deeds – A Rejoinder’, Plebs, August 1937

‘China and the Comintern’, Controversy, October 1937

‘Histories of the CPGB’ Controversy, December 1937

‘The Prince of Anarchists’, Plebs, March 1938

‘Murder in Moscow: Another Gigantic Frame-Up’, Fight, April 1938

‘Could Be Improved: Engels on Capital’, Plebs, April 1938

‘Soviet Purge Continues’, Fight, June 1938

‘Jackson Versus Sara’, Plebs, June 1938

‘Japan: Weakest Link in the Chain’, Controversy, August 1938

‘Engels on Capital’, Plebs, August 1938

‘The Chinese Revolution’, New Leader, 21 October 1938

‘Pollitt and the Party Line’, Call of the Socialist Anti-War Front, November 1939

‘Not State Capitalism’, Left, January 1940

‘Is Anarchy the Answer?’, New Leader, 26 August 1944

‘Warfare and Words’, Plebs, December 1944

‘Frederick Engels’, Plebs, September 1945

‘Science and Heredity’, Socialist Leader, 24 March 1951

‘Pathways in Science’, Socialist Leader, 23 June 1951

‘Marx, Hegel and Russia’, Socialist Leader, 16 February 1952

‘The Peasants and Marx’, Socialist Leader, 29 March 1952

‘Stalin Said No’, Socialist Leader, 5 April 1952



Sara-Maitland Papers, Wicks Papers, MRC, University of Warwick

Aldred Papers, Mitchell Library, Glasgow

Communist Party Archive, NMLH

NCLC Papers, National Library of Scotland

Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), Moscow

Harry Wicks, interview with A Richardson, 11 March 1978

Steve Dowdall and Daisy Groves, interview with A Richardson, nd but 1982 (in author’s possession)

II: Other

Parliamentary Debates, Fifth Series, Commons, 1916, Volumes LXXXI, LXXXH

P Howard, ‘Henry Sara: An Appreciation’, Spur, June 1916

‘Henry Sara Stands in Tottenham’, WorkersLife, 19 April 1929

RM Fox, Drifting Men (1930)

RM Fox, Smoky Crusade: An Autobiography (1938)

G Aldred, A Call to Manhood: 26 Essays (1944)

R Groves, ‘Farewell To A Rebel: The Life and Death of Henry Sara’, Socialist Leader, 28 November 1953

G Aldred, No TraitorsGait (1963)

R Groves, The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began (1974)

B Holton, British Syndicalism, 1900-1914 (1976)

R Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism (1977)

J Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of British Anarchism (1978)

AJP Taylor, A Personal History (1983)

K Weller, Don’t Be A Soldier! The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London, 1914-1918 (1985)

S Bornstein and A Richardson, Against The Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-1938 (1986)

John Taylor Caldwell, Come Dungeons Dark: The Life and Times of Guy Aldred (Barr 1988)

M Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism: The Movement for WorkersCouncils in Britain, 1917-1945 (1988)

C Tsuzuki, Tom Mann, 1856-1941: The Challenge of Labour (1991)

H Wicks, Keeping My Head: The Memoirs of a British Bolshevik (1992)

A Sisman, AJP Taylor: A Biography (1994)

B Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996)

B Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of A Revolutionary (1997)

M Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (1999)

K Burk, Troublemaker: The Life and History of AJP Taylor (2000)

III: Obituaries: Socialist Leader, 28 November 1953

Plebs, January 1954

Information and papers from JT Caldwell, A Campbell, T Crawford, J Greenway, A Richardson, J Quail, K Weller and C Wrigley