Return to Labour

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

One of the main political events of 1932 in Britain was the breakaway of the ILP from the Labour Party. Until July of that year the ILP had been a constituent part of, and indeed had played a key role in establishing and maintaining the Labour Party. Its secession reflected the feeling of disillusion with the failure of the Labour Party’s reformism which had been demonstrated by the collapse the previous year of the Labour government amid a record number of unemployed and with their leader going over to the Tories.

The ILP breakaway had no effect on the attitude of the CPGB to the ILP and its members. Which is not surprising since no authorisation for any change had come from Moscow. But at the 12th Plenum in September Gusev denounced the British party’s attitude to the ILP as “right opportunist lagging behind the mass movement”. The Party, in other words, had failed to realise that the breakaway of the ILP represented a leftward trend amongst working class militant and so had failed to take advantage of this.

“Right opportunism”, as we saw, is in Bolshevik jargon the opposite of ‘.Left sectarianism” and since in this period the Comintern was abandoning the old “sectarian” line it was on the face of it odd that a Party should be accused of “right opportunism”. But an incident in 1932 well illustrates what “right opportunism” was. The victim was ex-SLP man, J. T. Murphy, a local Communist leader with a trade union following in the factories of eastern Sheffield. At this time the CPGB was pursuing an anti-militarist policy and had raised the slogan “Stop the Transport of Munitions”. Murphy was against this and suggested as an alternative “Credits for the Soviet Union”. In fairness Murphy really was guilty of opportunism be- cause the factories of eastern Sheffield where his followers worked were munitions factories -an interesting example of how Communist trade union leaders had built up their following for industrial rather than political reasons.

The Comintern order to co-operate with and try to win over the members of the ILP was conveyed to the 12th Congress of the Party in November 1932. “The basic task”, said Pollitt, “is a definite turn in our united front work, to drawing in ILP workers in every phase of united front activity”. The ILP leaders, however, continued to be denounced as “the most dangerous reformists in this country” who were trying “to build a barrier between the leftward workers and the CP” (The Road to Victory, Pollitt’s Speech to the 12th Party Congress).

Four months later, however, in February 1933 the CPGB, following another lead given by the Comintern, called for united action with Labour, the TUC, the Co-operative Movement and the ILP. The “United front”, the Comintern had decreed, was to be extended from co-operation with workers who were members of other workers parties to co-operation with those parties themselves. What had caused this change of line was Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor at the end of January 1933. This represented a failure of the policies pursued by both the Social Democrats and the Communists to stop the rise of fascism. The Labour Party, needless to say, turned down this appeal with contempt but the ILP had agreed and in May a kind of non-aggression pact between the ILP and CPGB was concluded. This alliance was to prove highly embarrassing to the CPGB since they were moving rightwards while the ILP continued moving leftwards. The ILP, said Bell, “subsequently tried to break up the united front by making anti-Soviet Trotskyist attacks upon the USSR and the Communist International” {p.152). Actually, what was happening was that both the Trotskyists and the Communists were trying to take over the ILP by the dishonest policy of boring from within.

The Communist Party, we said, was continuing rightwards. A curious feature of this was that each step in this direction was justified by saying that the final revolutionary crisis was getting nearer. Bolshevik ideology, we saw earlier, demanded that any change in “tactics” had to be justified by a change in the “objective” situation. Since the VIth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928 authorised the “left” turn its EC had met four times. Each time it authorised a move away from “sectarianism” and each time this was justified by saying that the final crisis was getting nearer. Thus the 10th Plenum of the ECCI held from July to September 1929 predicted the imminence of a world economic crisis. The 11th Plenum held at the end of 1931 declared that the crisis was deepening {and authorised a revival of the united front tactic, but “only from below”). The 12th Plenum in September 1932 spoke of a transition from the economic to a revolutionary crisis {and again ex- tended the united front). The 13th Plenum in December 1933 declared that times were even nearer to a revolutionary crisis; at any moment the revolutionary crisis could come; the capitalists were abandoning democracy for fascism; the slogan “Soviet Power” should be raised by all Communist parties. In response the British party republished in March 1934 the thesis of the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, the previous occasion the Bolshevik leaders had hysterically predicted an immediate world revolution.

This demand of the 13th Plenum to step up “united front” tactics amounted to a demand to intensify the struggle for immediate demands under the leadership of the CPGB. From the beginning of 1934, however, as the Russian government re-thought its foreign policy, there were so many changes in the Comintern’s line that the British Party was unable to keep up with them.

In February 1934 it was urging workers to vote against both the Tories and the Labour Party in the London County Council elections and in March put up a candidate against the Labour nominee in a parliamentary by-election in Hammersmith. “A third Labour government”, it was said, “means only betrayals” (One Million London Workers to Welcome Hunger Marchers!, February 1934). Harry Pollitt declared that there was “no contradiction between being associated with the other parties in united front activity against capitalist attack, and opposing the same parties in elections” (Daily Worker, 19 March, 1934). As late as 9 August the Daily Worker was still arguing that for the Communist Party to extend the united front to electoral activities would be “renouncing its revolutionary policy and programme . . . This it cannot do and remain the workers’ party. Therefore it opposes Labour Party and ILP candidates whenever possible”. Less than two weeks later, on 21 August, the Daily Worker was reporting that the French Communist Party had concluded just such a deal with the Social Democrats there! The significance of this was not lost on the leaders of the British party and by the time the February 1935 local elections came round their policy had again shifted. Now they were prepared to back any Labour candidate who supported the united front. Harry Pollitt had the unenviable task of explaining this shift to the delegates at the Party’s 13th Congress in February .The already bewildered delegates were treated to the now familiar excuse:

“The question has been raised: ‘Do our new tactics in the elections imply that the previous line of the Party was wrong?’ This question principally arises from our in- ability to understand that the application of the tactical line and policy of the Communist party is always adapted to the immediate concrete situation and needs to be changed as the situation changes, with its subsequent changes in the working class movement” (A Call To All Workers, 13th CPGB Congress, February, 1935).

Pollitt went on to speak of this leading to the conditions for “sweeping away the National Government, returning of CP MP’s and a Labour Government”.

This was in fact way to the right of the new programme For Soviet Britain adopted at the Congress. This had been drafted before Pollitt was ordered to do his about-turn and still reflected the policy of the 13th Plenum as far back as December 1933! After the Congress the old slogan of “Down With the National Government” was replaced by a call for a “Third Labour Government”, though unqualified support for all Labour Party candidates had yet to come. In June the CPGB offered to form a United Communist Party with the ILP, but this was just a way of withdrawing its members who had been boring from within the ILP since by now the ILP was regarding the CPGB as a little moderate for them.

By the middle of 1935 the Russian government had decided on its new foreign policy: to seek the support of “democratic” France and Britain against “fascist” Germany. A full Congress -the 7th -of the Communist International was summoned in order to let the various Communist parties know what the new line was. “In the mobilisation of the toiling masses for the struggle against fascism”, Georgi Dimitrov, hero of the Reichstag fire, told them, “the formation of a broad people’s anti-fascist front on the basis of the proletarian united front is a particularly important task”. Unity of action against fascism, he went on, must lead to political unity, to one working class political party in each country.

Their instructions clear, the leaders of the British party returned from Moscow and called a special Party Congress. The old programme For Soviet Britain adopted earlier that year was quietly forgotten and a call for a Labour government substituted. From then on the Communist Party gave unqualified support to the Labour Party; it backed all the Labour candidates, not just left-wingers, in the November General Election and soon applied for affiliation -only to be rejected of course, with some pointed reminders about their previous policy and the lack of democracy in Russia. In accordance with Dimitrov’s instructions the Party went patriotic, dropped its anti-militarist line and cut out the subheading of the Daily Worker which read “Organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Section of the Communist International)”.

The end of 1935 is a good place to stop in our early history of the Communist Party of Great Britain since this party’s present policy is substantially the same as it had then become: support for the Labour Party and a Labour government. There is one difference, however, the Communist Party now puts up candidates against the Labour Party. How long it will take them to drop this inconsistency remains to be seen.



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