The Pendulum Swings Back

The fourth in our series on the early history and ideas of the British Communist Party

The Communist International, or Comintern, was a valuable political asset to the rulers of state capitalist Russia. It was also a financial investment since they spent considerable sums subsidising Communist parties abroad. The Comintern was useful to them because it could be used as an adjunct to Russian foreign policy. But to do this it had to have some following in the countries Russia wanted to influence. So, although there were very real political reasons for the policy of “independent leadership”, its disastrous effect on the membership and influence of Communist Parties throughout the world was bound to lead sooner or later to a re-assessment of the whole policy.

This is what did happen though gradually and it was not until the end of 1934 that the pre-1928 position was again reached. Though this time it did not stop there but kept on going to the right till by 1939 the CPGB was a chauvinist body calling for an alliance of all anti-fascist elements including those in the Tory party.

Using the word in its Bolshevik sense the CPGB was at its most “sectarian” in the years 1930 and 1931 following the Leeds Conference in December 1929. This was during the depth of the slump with a helpless Labour government in power. The Communists’ denunciations of the Labour Party and the trade unions as anti-working class found a ready hearing amongst some of the unemployed, who provided the bulk of the members and supporters of the party in this period.

During this period the Communists were, literally, violently opposed to the Labour Party. The Daily Worker, which was launched in January 1930, carried that very same month a call from Harry Pollitt to physically break-up Labour meetings:

“There should not be a Labour meeting held anywhere, but what the revolutionary workers in that district attend such meetings and fight against the speakers, whoever they are, so-called ‘left’, ‘right’ or ‘centre’. They should never be allowed to address the workers. This will bring us into conflict with the authorities, but this must be done. The fight can no longer be conducted in a passive manner” (29 January).

This kind of talk and action earned the Communists the reputation of being anti-trade union also. This was a valid criticism, not in the sense that the Communists were opposed to workers putting up a fight on the industrial field but in that of urging workers to conduct this fight outside the unions and under the leadership of rival bodies set up and led by the Communists. For the policy of “independent leadership” was to apply on the industrial as well as on the political field.

The Comintern’s policy involved withdrawing not only from the Labour Party but also from the reformist trade unions whose bureaucracy was said to be actively aiding the capitalists to crush the workers. Instead the Communists were supposed to set up rival “red unions”. This policy may have made some sense in Europe where the workers had a tradition of being organised on political or religious lines but in Britain it was madness. For one lesson the workers of Britain had learned was trade union unity, a lesson embodied in the slogans “Unity is Strength” and “United We Stand, Divided We Fall”. Trade and occupation, rather than politics or religion, were recognised as the proper bases for organisation on the industrial field.

But faced with the Comintern instructions the CPGB had to make a show. They did manage to set up two “red” unions -the United Mineworkers of Scotland and the United Clothing Workers Union. The Scottish coalfield had a tradition of splits and breakaways which the Communists were able to draw on. The clothing workers’ union was a breakaway of the London members of the Garment Workers Union under the popular Sam Elsbury who were dissatisfied with the timid attitude of the union’s national leaders.

For the rest the policy of “independent leadership” relied on what was left of the Minority Movement and on so-called Workers’ Committees the Communists set up in the factories and mines and during strikes as would-be rivals to the established unions.

The MM, which had been the vehicle of Communist pressure on the TUC in the mid-twenties, issued its own membership cards and so could be regarded as a kind of union, though it was never involved in negotiations with employers or in calling strikes. In any event, this was how the Communists chose to regard it. For instance, the Seamen’s Minority Movement was an attempt to organise a rival to the National Union of Seamen. When in the summer of 1930 the CPGB decided to launch a “Workers’ Charter” in a bid to gain a mass following the MM was used. The Charter, with obvious historical significance, had six points such as higher unemployment pay, against speed-up, against increased national insurance contributions, repeal of the Trades Disputes Act – ordinary reforms. Actually the Party’s own programme went further for Class Against Class called for a national minimum wage of £4 a week while the Charter only demanded £3. But then consistency was not something the Communist Party could ever be accused of.

The other expedient, workers’ councils or committees, were set up especially during strikes. So, for instance, when the textile workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire or the South Wales miners went on strike there were two strike committees – the official union one and its Communist rival. Needless to say, the Communists represented no-one but themselves. The result was the dread “isolation from the masses” and an unenviable reputation for wrecking tactics.

As we saw, it was not as wreckers that Communist trade unionists had built up their following, but as militant union members. They were thus in a difficult position, torn between loyalty to the Party’s wrecking line and loyalty to their fellow workers in the unions. The fates of Arthur Horner and Sam Elsbury illustrate this dilemma.

Horner was a prominent and very active member of the South Wales Miners Federation. Up until 1929 he was on the Central Committee of the CPGB, being one of those excluded for refusing to wholeheartedly endorse the “left” turn. It was clear that after the line was changed Homer was going to be singled out as an example of how a Communist should not behave. In 1929 he opposed continuing unofficially a strike which the SWMF had decided to call off because it had no chance of success. For this he was accused of capitulating to the union bureaucrats, a heresy that was labelled “Hornerism”. Homer, however, was not the sort of man to take this lying down. He appealed to the Political Bureau and then to the Central Committee and finally, as the dispute dragged on into 1930, to the Communist International. Anxious not to lose so popular an industrial leader, the Comintern ruled that Horner was wrong but that the CPGB was also wrong to inflate this into “Hornerism”. Horner was satisfied, or at least he stayed in the Party. But the policy of “independent leadership” was again to try his patience in March 1931. During a strike of Welsh miners the Communists had applied their policy of setting up their own strike committees. Horner wrote to Moscow denouncing this saying it resulted “only in our isolation”. The Communist Party, he went on, was “effectively bankrupt from every angle” (Daily Worker, 10 March, 1931). Strong words! Hornerism was rearing its head again. By now the Comintern had had time to see the disastrous effects of their 1928 policy and Homer’s letter must have played a part in bringing about the relaxation of “independent leadership” that was allowed at the end of 1931. There was speculation at the time that Homer would set up a rival Communist Party less given to wrecking tactics but in the end he again stayed a member.

The policy of “independent leadership” succeeded in wrecking one of the two “red” unions – the United Clothing Workers Union under Sam Elsbury. Elsbury, who had been London organiser of the old union, was the secretary of the new union but had to take his orders from the CPGB. Those orders involved calling strikes whenever the slightest excuse arose with little or no regard for the chances of success or for the finances of the union. This led to one of the more sordid episodes in the history of the British Communist Party. In order to get Elsbury to call a strike on one occasion in 1930 the Party promised £400 for union funds which otherwise could not have borne the burden. Promised such financial support the men went on strike, but the money was not forthcoming and they had to return to work defeated with their union organisation at the factory in ruins. This was too much for Elsbury .He resigned from the Communist Party denouncing its methods. This the Party was not prepared to accept – nobody resigned from a Bolshevik party! – and expelled him instead, using the childish trick of backdating his expulsion to the day before he wrote his letter of resignation. Elsbury was viciously denounced and, needless to say, was driven out of his union job also. While Horner remained a lifelong Communist and went on to become General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Elsbury later became a Labour councillor in the east end of London. He was able to get his own back on the CPGB for its shabby treatment of him when in 1937 he won a libel action that caused the withdrawal of an official history of the Party written by Tom Bell.

The 11th Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) that met at the end of 1931 decided to call a halt to this disastrous policy. “Sectarianism” and the “isolation” it caused were denounced. The sort of reputation the CPGB had got can be gathered from comments made at the 12th Plenum in September 1932 when the beneficial results, influence-wise, of the new turn were discussed. .’Our party”, declared Comintern-man Gusev, “was not popular amongst the organised workers because it had obtained a firm reputation for being against the trade unions”. Pollitt admitted:

“Wrong formulations on this question of the trade union movement have given the impression that we are out to smash and disrupt the trade union movement.”

The British Party began the process of picking up the pieces with its 1932 “January Resolution” which echoed the new Comintern line. As described by Bell (Communist historians are not reliable except as a guide to what at the time of writing the Party wanted people to think, but on this he happened to be right):

“This Resolution demanded a complete transformation in the direction of revolutionary mass work in the trade unions; a fight against ‘Left’ sectarianism, which interpreted independent leadership as the abandonment of all work in the reformist trade unions; at the same time it demanded a struggle against trade union legalism, for persistent recruiting to the party, for improving the con- tent and increasing the sales of the Daily Worker, and, finally insisted on the need for tirelessly explaining to the workers the revolutionary way out of the crisis.” (The British Communist Party, A Short History, 1937, p. 150).

The reference to a “way out” of the crisis reflected another chance in the line. Up till 1932 the CPGB held that capitalism was collapsing. Palme Dutt, as the Party theorist, was the main spokesman for this viewpoint.

In Capitalism or Socialism in Britain? (March 1931), he declared:

“Capitalism or Socialism in Britain – capitalist collapse or Workers’ Revolution – this is no longer a debating issue of the future, it is a life and death issue, a fight for life that draws close”

and, in The Workers’ Answer to the Crisis (August 1931):

“The final issue is: Workers’ Revolution or final collapse and mass starvation.”

So Dutt, and the Communist Party, were committed in these pamphlets to the view that capitalism was collapsing and that, without a socialist revolution, the workers would starve. In effect the reason the communists were giving the workers for rising up was to avoid mass starvation. It wasn’t a very encouraging message but it did provide a sort of justification for the desperate wrecking tactics the Communists had been engaging in: the situation was urgent; the Labour and trade union bureaucrats were blocking the way; to avoid mass starvation they must be smashed.

After January 1932 this was not the attitude of mind the Communists wanted the workers to have. They wanted them to fight for reforms so that the Communists by leading them in such struggles could regain some of their lost influence. They had thus to pander to reformist illusions. This was done in two ways: the harsh doctrine of “Revolt or Starve” was abandoned and the “united front” tactic was revived to a small extent.

“Revolt or Starve” was a doctrine that might have stirred the Communists to do desperate things they wouldn’t normally do, but it was also by implication a declaration that it was futile to struggle for reforms. As the Communists now wanted to lead such struggles with some chance of winning a following this doctrine had to go. It was done in an ingenious way. The Communists now said that Socialism or Starvation were not the only two alternatives but that there was a “capitalist way out of the crisis” involving attacks from various sides on the workers’ standard of living. This served a dual purpose for the Communists could now claim that the “revolutionary way out” of the crisis could be found in struggling against the capitalist way out. They had done it again: Reform could be justified in terms of Revolution without offending too much the illusions of pro-Labour workers.

Dutt recanted at the earliest possible moment. In the February 1932 issue of Labour Monthly he wrote:

“Until the proletarian revolution overthrows capitalism, it is inevitable that capitalism, whatever the extremity of its chaos and breakdown, will drag on, will of necessity find its own ‘way out’, from form to form from stage to stage, with increasing misery and renewed contradictions-until the proletariat acts.”

Earlier in the same article Dutt had written that until there was the necessary “action, organisation and victory of the working class . . . capitalism will still drag on from crisis to crisis.” This in fact was the classic Marxist position – that capitalism would go on from crisis to crisis until the workers consciously organised to end it. A few months later in April, as we saw, Pollitt was brazenly denouncing the ILP for being defeatist in preaching the collapse of capitalism, though, it is true, the ILP went further than the CPGB ever did. Maxton once gave capitalism only six weeks!

The second concession was the revival of “united front” tactics, “but only from below”. This proviso nullified the effect since it ruled out united action between Communist and Labour and Social Democrat organisations. Which was what the united front was supposed to be. So it would be inaccurate to say that after 1931 the Communists were again wooing the Social Democrats. Far from it, they were still “social fascists” pre- paring the way for fascism proper. The new formula did, however, represent a significant departure from the previous line. In calling for Labour and Communist workers to undertake joint activity it was a concession to the pro-Labour sentiments of the workers. It was a slight move from the previous rigid anti-Labour position. And was recognised as such by some members. For as Pollitt told the 12th Plenum in September 1932:

“the tactic of the united front with the workers who be- longed to the Labour Party was looked on, by a large portion of the Party members, as a step back from the tactic of ‘class against class’.”


Next month: (The concluding article): The Communist Party continues to move in the direction of full support for a Labour Government.

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