Stalin Turns Left
The second in our series on the early history and ideas of the British Communist Party.
In 1930 The Communist Party of Great Britain had just entered the period of “independent leadership” in accordance with the tactical turn made by the Communist International. The new tactics involved the end of working within the Labour Party and the trade unions in favour of outright opposition to them. When the change of tactics was being discussed in 1928 and 1929 a majority in the leadership of the British Party was opposed to them, arguing that the time had not yet come to give up work in the Labour Party and the unions.
In 1920 Lenin had argued that the CPGB should try to affiliate to the Labour Party since this was not an orthodox Social Democratic party but rather a federation of workers’ political and industrial organisations; as one such organisation the Communist Party had every right to be in the Labour Party without any compromise of principle. In 1922, in accordance with a Comintern decision of the previous December in favour of “united front” tactics, the CPGB raised the slogan of a ‘Labour Government’ and began to work, as best it could, through the Labour party and the unions to achieve this.
Seeing that they were only a small party this tactic can be said to have been fairly successful. Through the Minority Movement, set up in 1924, they were able to rally any Leftwing trade unionists behind their slogans. In 1925 the British TUC even agreed to establish with the Russian unions an Anglo/Russian Trade Union Committee. The leaders of the Labour Party, however, hit back. The 1924 and 1925 Party Conferences carried a number of anti-Communist motions barring members of the Communist Party from being candidates or even individual members of the Labour Party. Affiliated unions were urged not to include Communists in their delegations to the Labour Party Conference. Some local Labour parties, already under Communist influence, refused to accept these decisions and were disaffiliated. These local parties, together with others still in the Labour Party, were organised by the Communist Party into the National Leftwing Movement.
The Anglo/Russian Trade Union Committee broke up in mutual recriminations after the raid in 1927 on the London offices of the Russian trading firm Arcos. But, through the Minority Movement and the Leftwing Movement the Party was having some success with its tactic of boring from within the reformist organisations.
However, the end of the General Strike and then the Mond-Turner talks on “industrial peace”, together with the anti-Communist rulings of the Labour Party, made co-operating with the Labour and TUC leaders unpopular with a section of the CPGB membership. They found a spokesman in R. Palme Dutt, who had been the founder and editor of Labour Monthly, and was one of the CPGB’s leading theoreticians. He, with Harry Pollitt, had played a key role in the committee which had recommended major changes in the organisation of the Communist Party, leading in 1922 to the replacing of the old federal structure by one (involving ‘cells’ and the like) more suited to the CP tactic of boring-from-within and controlling other bodies by secret caucuses. Trotsky, too, who had fallen out of favour in Russia, was criticising the Stalin leadership for relying too much on alliance with people like the Left in the British TUC and not enough on working class militancy. There is evidence that Dutt sympathised with some of Trotsky’s criticisms. In any event his Where is Britain Going? was favourably reviewed.
Dutt became the spokesman of those in the Communist Party dissatisfied with the boring-from-within tactic which, in their view, meant that the Party acted merely as a leftwing ginger group for Labour. These critics, mainly among the younger members, were calling for what in Bolshevik terminology was a “left” turn. They wanted the Communist Party to come out in open opposition to the Labour Party.
The Communist Party leaders, and probably a majority of the members, were quite content with the old tactic. Indeed, some of them obviously thought that being a ginger group for Labour was their party’s role. Thus, again in Bolshevik terminology, ‘opportunist’ trends were strong in the British party.
It so happened that the Stalin group was also planning a “Left” turn in 1928, both in its domestic and in its foreign (and so Comintern) policies. In Russia forced collectivisation began. The Comintern changed its tactics. However, as we saw, tactical changes should only take place in Bolshevik theory when the situation changes. Thus the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928 proclaimed the end of the period of partial capitalist stabilisation which had existed almost continuously from 1921 and the beginning of another “crisis of capitalism”. This meant that the old pre-1921 slogans, suited to “revolutionary situations”, were brought out again.
Once again the Social Democratic parties were seen as openly counter-revolutionary outfits pledged to help maintain capitalism by confusing workers and diverting their discontent into peaceful reform rather than into civil war and revolution. For this the notorious phrase “social fascists” was coined. But the turn went further than this. Not only were the Social Democrats “social fascists” but the “main blows” ought to be directed against them since they had more influence over the workers than the ordinary fascists. The most dangerous kind of Social Democrat, said the Comintern, were the “Lefts” who mouthed revolutionary phrases to cover up their treacherous role of diverters of the workers’ discontent into reformist channels. The ILP in Britain fell into this category and among the first to receive the main blows were Cook and Maxton for their 1928 Manifesto.
Naturally, such a sharp turn caused misgivings amongst those who had joined the Communist Party thinking it was just a part of the Labour Movement. The leadership of the Party tried to resist the change but, once the Comintern had decided, they had to abide by it. Then they tried to interpret it in a not so anti-Labour manner: Did it really mean that Communists in the unions should no longer pay the political levy to the Labour Party? Yes, it did, replied the Comintern. Gradually the leaders of the British party were driven further and further to the left till they had to publicly proclaim before the 1929 election that Labour was “the third capitalist party” and to put up their own candidates in opposition to Labour. This clearly went against the grain for some and the Comintern knew it. They resolved that a new, more reliable leadership was required to carry out the new policy faithfully.
In the British Communist Party there were those who had criticised the old line and were enthusiastically in favour of the changed tactics. It was from their ranks that the new leadership would be drawn. The Tenth Party Congress in January 1929 was the last more or less democratic Communist conference. It elected the same old names to the Central Committee. After pressure from both the Comintern and the Left in the party another Conference was held in Leeds in December of the same year. This time the delegates were given a recommended list to vote for, a list which omitted several of the old leaders. Not all of them were dropped since it was recognised that they had the political experience that would be a valuable aid to the inexperienced new men who were being brought in. The post of Secretary was up-graded so that the man who filled it would be the recognised “Leader” of the Party.
The man chosen by the Comintern was Harry Pollitt. He had all the qualifications: an industrial worker (Pollitt was a boilermaker by trade), with a record of militancy (the Jolly George incident in 1919), reasonably well-known at Labour and TUC Conferences, an experienced party official of many years standing, tough-minded and, finally, thoroughly reliable. Till 1929 the CPGB had had what amounted to a collective leadership. After the Eleventh Congress of December 1929 Pollitt was the recognised Leader with Dutt as his deputy in charge of theory.
The names of Dutt and Pollitt had in fact already been linked in the title of a document calling for and justifying a change to open opposition to Labour. This was the Dutt/Pollitt Thesis, though it was obviously mainly the work of Dutt.
There were two reasons why the Communists had been pro-Labour: (1) Lenin’s view on the federal nature of the British Labour Party. (2) A dose of Labour government would rid workers of their reformist illusions.
Dutt, therefore, had to refute both of these. Naturally, he was not going to challenge them head on (though of course he could have said they were mistaken all along). He merely argued that conditions had changed.
First, the Labour Party had changed from a federation of workers’ organisations into a disciplined party of the Social Democratic type. Dutt brought forward as evidence the anti-Communist rulings and the con- sequent expulsions and disaffiliations. Thus he was saying here that it was no longer possible for Communists to bore-from-within the Labour Party, at least not very effectively.
Second, the failure of the 1924 Labour government had disillusioned the workers who were now looking for revolutionary leadership. This was a more dubious proposition, but Dutt justified it by reference to the General Strike and, oddly, to falling Labour votes at national and local elections. The Labour Party, the thesis was saying, was finished and on the way out.
We need not say much on the first point except that when after 1935 the Communists returned to the pro-Labour tactic they were quite successful in getting into the Labour Party, the “bans and proscriptions” not-withstanding.
But the second point was patently wrong and could have been seen to be so at the time. Labour was by no means finished (and, if it was, why wait till 1928 to change tactics, why not 1925 or 1926?). Indeed they emerged from the 1929 election as the largest Party (despite Communist opposition) and once again took over the administration of capitalism. This miscalculation meant that, from the viewpoint of Bolshevik tactics, the CPGB zigged while the masses zagged. The “revolutionary vanguard” was moving in the opposite direction to the workers and as a result became “isolated” from them, a terrible fate to befall a Bolshevik party.
Of course, it is not quite correct to say that this was a “miscalculation” for what was happening in Britain was not the only relevant factor for the Communists. What was happening in Russia was just as important and the Stalin government had its reasons for turning to the left-collectivisation: fear of growing hostility towards Russia by other States.
Next month: how the Communist Party used revolutionary phrases to disguise its reformist practice.