Duncan Hallas

Down the line

(October 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.80, October 1985, pp.28-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941
Noreen Branson
Lawrence and Wishart £6.95

‘ALL HISTORY is contemporary history.’ The historian necessarily views the past in the light of his or her understanding of the present. Noreen Branson sees the history of the CPGB from the emphatically non-revolutionary standpoint of the CP today.

The CPGB was founded as a revolutionary organisation, a section of the Communist International. Yet Ms Branson wishes to trace a line of continuity between the revolutionary organisation which still existed in 1927 and the party of 1941 and (by implication) the party of today.

But there had been a fundamental change.

The tendency of this book is as close to the current line of Marxism Today as is possible short of repudiating the whole history of the party.

Nonetheless, it is a useful book, one from which a good deal can be learned. It incorporates previously unpublished material. It is mercifully free from the outrageous lies about all Stalin’s left opponents which rendered worthless most CP-inspired accounts of this period until quite recently.

The period it covers is of immense importance for revolutionary politics in Britain. It is impossible to understand the history of the Labour Party and, still more, of the successive Labour lefts in this period without, first, considering the role of the CPGB. The successive Labour lefts of the twenties and thirties were, politically speaking, either a reaction against or an adaptation to the politics of the CPGB.

More important, the CPGB was the driving force behind the industrial left – in the workplaces and (during most, though not all, of this time) in the unions too.

Most important of all, it was through the CPGB that Stalinism became a real force in the British workers’ movement.

The fact is that the best, the most politically conscious, the most militant and the most self-sacrificing workers identified with the CPGB as members or supporters, not only in the twenties but even in the thirties and later.


Shifts and turns

The period covered by the book saw a series of shifts and turns in the CP line, which are duly recorded. It may be useful, to summarise them: the continuation (with modification) of the ‘rightist’ line of pressurising the union and Labour Party lefts towards ‘left’ policies in 1927-28; the violent swing to the left (in fact to the ultra-left) in 1929-33; the shift to more or less united front tacaics from mid-1933 to early 1935; the violent shift to the right (away from communist politics altogether) in 1935-39; the abrupt abandonment of this ‘Popular Front’ line in late 1939 and its resumption – with an even more right wing content – from 22 July 1941 onwards.

This framework is necessary, but far from sufficient, for the understanding of the CP’s – and therefore the trade union and Labour Party left’s – evolution.

In 1927, in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926, the leaderships of the TUC and the Labour Party were swinging sharply to the right. The CPGB was small but growing. Noreen Branson tells us: ‘At the end of 1926 it had no more than 7,900 members.’ There had been a big gain from the (optimistic) party claim of 5,000 in June 1925.

Branson continues, ‘But its influence was wider than such numbers suggest.’ That is certainly true. It is also true that part of that influence was due to the party’s extremely soft line towards the left wing of the union officialdom.

With the abrupt collapse of the left wing union leaders in the General Strike, the CP-directed National Minority Movement, which had done so much to build them up, was left floundering.

Inside the Labour Party, the CP-influenced National Left Wing Movement (founded as late as September 1926) found itself increasingly isolated.

The strategic orientation that the CPGB had adopted in 1925 (in line with the rightward shift of the Communist International at this time) – influence and push forward the reformist left without criticising them too sharply – was increasingly ineffective.

The party’s allies of yesterday were either, like George Hicks, leader of the building trades union and Lon Swales of the engineers, openly hostile, or, like miners’ leader A.J. Cook increasingly cool and distant.

Tactically, by late 1927 the party was in a dead end. It is important to grasp this in order to understand with followed.

1927 was also the year in which Trotsky, Zinoviev and their supporters were expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; the year of the final disaster of the Stalin-Bukharin class collaborationist policy in China (the Canton Commune), and of the suppression of all open dissent in the USSR. The process of Stalinisation was naturally extended to the Communist International, and the ‘honour’ of moving the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev from its executive was awarded to J.T. Murphy of the CPGB.

None of these facts are noted by Noreen Branson. Perhaps she thinks they are irrelevant. She does, however, devote attention to the Ninth Plenum of the Comintern Executive (February 1928). It was called primarily to orchestrate an international campaign against ‘Trotskyism’ and all the leaders of the CPGB went along with this without demur.

The Plenum also marked the initiation of the ‘New Line’, a sharp swing to the left by the International, which was highly unwelcome to the majority of the British party’s leaders.

Two things are important here: the rights and wrongs of the New Line itself, and the effect of its ultimate operation on the CPGB.

The policies the party had actually been pursuing in the previous period were, in fact, ‘right centrist’ polices, as Trotsky argued at the time. They were not a peculiar deviation of the CPGB. They were the line of the Comintern centre.

After the betrayal of the General Strike, the union and Labour Party leaders (including many of the CP’s allies of yesterday) ‘opened up a new drive to outlaw the Communists and isolate them from the rest of the labour movement’, as Noreen Branson says in a very good chapter (The Great Purge 1926-28). But what political conclusions needed to be drawn from this?

That the previous line had been mistaken, at least in its emphasis? That was an intolerable heresy.

That the circumstances had changed since the General Strike? That was the line of the Comintern leadership and it had some plausibility. Things had indeed changed.

The right wing of MacDonald, Citrine, Bevin and the rest were clearly pushing both the TUC and the Labour Party to more and more openly class collaborationist positions and were gaining ground against the left. Bans and proscriptions against the left were multiplying fast.

Therefore, declared the Comintern leadership, a decisive break with them is necessary, and this line was pressed upon the reluctant British leadership. There were at least two things wrong with it.

First, the rotten class collaborationist positions of the TUC/Labour Party did not date from 1927-28 but from the beginning.

Second, if a ‘united front’ tactic had been necessary before the defeat of the General Strike, was it not even more necessary in the period of demoralisation and retreat after it?

The Comm tern, now in an advanced stage of political degeneration, could not affbrd to have such matters openly debated. Therefore, the New Line, so far as Britain was concerned, was promoted first of all in terms of critical electoral support of the Labour Party, or not. To compress the time scale somewhat, the CPGB was pressured to drop support 1or the election of a Labour government, to adopt the slogan ‘For a Revolutionary Workers’ Government’ and, finally, to urge workers not to vote Labour even where (i.e. almost everywhere) there was no CP candidate.

The argument was conducted on a false basis on both sides. The Comintern leaders argued that the Labour Party was now a fully-fledged social-democratic (i.e. counterrevolutionary) party – not the loose federation of which Lenin had written in 1920.

They were unquestionably right on that score. In the course of its struggle with the CP (and its own lefts) in the 1920s the Labour Party had become a real pro-capitalist party.


Lenin and Labour

Therefore, they said, Lenin’s 1920 advice to give critical electoral support to the Labour Party (‘to support them as the rope supports the man who is hanged’) no longer applied. This was and is nonsense.

Lenin’s argument in 1920 was that the Labour Party was ‘a thoroughly bourgeois party, although composed of workers’ and was led by people even worse than the leaders of the German SPD, who had saved the German boss class in 1918-19. The point was to prove this, in practice, to millions of workers. In no way did that part of the argument depend on the peculiar constitution of the Labour Party.

What did depend on the ‘constitutional’ argument was the campaign for CP affiliation to the Labour Party. By 1927 this was a lost cause-the tide in the Labour Party was to the right, and had been since 1925, and the Labour Party leadership had succeeded (or was about to succeed)in eliminating all open revolutionaries from the party.

The Comintern leaders argued (rightly) that the affiliation campaign be dropped. However, instead of resting on the position that it was now a dead duck (as was manifestly the case) they produced spurious ‘theoretical’ arguments about the changed nature of the Labour Party – culminating in the absurd proposition that the Labour Party was now ‘Social-Fascist’.

The third question in dispute between the British party and the Comintern executive was the future of the National Left Wing Movement.

Its object – ‘to secure the adoption by the Labour Party of a militant socialist policy in place of its present policy of compromise with capitalism’ – was compatible with the aim of building the CP, so long as the lines of the two parties were converging and the whole left growing.

With the lines diverging and the left declining, the NLWM had become ‘not a bridge [to the CP] but a barrier’. The ‘New Line’ required its liquidation.

Finally, and most important of all, the National Minority Movement must now give ‘independent leadership’, said the Comintern centre. Again, the reaction against the previous (Comintern-inspired) line of reliance on ‘left’ officials was unquestionably correct. But ‘independent leadership’ was then interpreted as operating virtually outside the existing unions.

It took some 18 months (and two party Congresses) to secure both the wholehearted adoption of the new line and a British leadership in which the Comintern had confidence. By the Leeds Congress (November 1929) it had been done.

Only 13 of the members of the old central committee survived on the new committee of 36. Party membership was down to 3,000. And effective leadership of the party was now in the hands of Harry Pollitt and his minder, the ‘theoretician’ Palme Dutt. Pollitt was an able and energetic organiser and an excellent speaker. But he was totally and uncritically committed to Moscow. The Comintern centre – which, for practical purposes, now meant Stalin and his associates – now had an obedient party in Britain.

From now on, until long after the end of the period covered by this book, the line of the CPGB was determined by the requirements of Russian foreign policy. It had become a thoroughly Stalinist party. This was the really decisive event in its history.

All the evidence suggests that for most of the cadre and members, the tie that bound them was a conviction, a devout belief in the myth of ‘Soviet socialism’. There was also, for the party apparatus, another tie, secondary no doubt, but important.

The CPGB had never been really solvent. Even in 1925, when the Comintern’s rein was considerably looser than it later became, the party’s income from its own members was about £1,200 a year, and the Comintern subsidy £16,000. Now, with the new line, a smaller membership and a much smaller periphery, the party launched a daily newspaper, the Daily Worker.

It was produced, it was cheerfully admitted, ‘with the aid of comrades in Eastern Europe’ (I take this statement from The Story of the Daily Worker by its editor, Bill Rust – not from Ms Branson, who does not discuss the question).

Unquestionably, the dependence of the party on Corn intern money greatly increased in the early thirties.


Stalin’s tragedy

After 1929 we can no longer discuss the CP in the same terms. The wholesale repudiation of basic class struggle politics during the Popular Front period, the monstrous lie and slander campaign the CP directed against the old Bolsheviks murdered by Stalin, the obscene reversals of policy during the Second World War-these things have nothing to do with Marxism or revolutionary working class politics. They represent the prostitution of some of the best people in the workers’ movement, in Britain and internationally, to a brutal despotism.

Yet these people-the great majority of them-were, and often remained, dedicated, self-sacrificing militants. This is the real tragedy of the international effect of Stalinism in Russia.

Read Noreen Branson’s chapter on Conspiracy and Incitement to Mutiny, the story of the 1929-31 Labour government’s use of police and the courts against party militants (and other internationalists), read her account of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and of Industrial Struggles 1930-35 to get a flavour of that determination and self-sacrifice – all twisted and distorted in the interests of Stalinism.

Ms Branson sympathises with the militants, in spite of her current views. But she has no notion of what the politics were really about. This book, in spite of its detail and (relative) candour does not really help the reader to understand the revolutionary left in this period.

Hugo Dewar’s much briefer treatment in Communist Politics in Britain is a real guide. Read it first and then, to flesh out the account, read Noreen Branson’s book critically.


Last updated on 27.12.2003