Rattling the Labour right
Lawrence Parker spoke at Communist University 2016 on the National Left Wing Movement - an organisation that was active in the Labour Party during the 1920s. Chris Hill of Labour Party Marxists spoke to him
Labour Party Marxists has raised a flag in the Labour Party - a modest start. The comrades who have taken this initiative have drawn a lot of inspiration from the National Left Wing Movement, promoted by the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s. Today rightwingers from Tom Watson down are talking of a ‘Trot plot’ to swamp the party, and the associated return of entryism. Was the NLWM an ‘entryist’ initiative by the CPGB of that time, in the way we have later come to understand the term?
The short answer is no. Obviously it did involve members of a specific Marxist organisation in the shape of the CPGB working in the Labour Party, although many of them would have been members prior to the NLWM’s formation in 1925, given the initial structure and culture of the party.
That is about as far as the similarities go with the generalised Trotskyist understanding of work inside the Labour Party. To my mind, the tactics advocated by the old Militant Tendency - and smaller competitors to its left inside the party in the 1980s and earlier - were a debased form of the work of the NLWM. This can be usefully illustrated by considering a Militant article by Tony Aitman published in 1986, looking at the CPGB’s role in the Labour Party in the 1920s.1
It is very interesting, of course, that the Militant grouping was trying to draw parallels between its experience of attacks and purges in the Labour Party of the mid-1980s and the CPGB’s from an earlier period. The article is broadly supportive of the NLWM initiative. However, it portrays the Militant group merely as a trend inside Labour and suggests the problem with the CPGB was its distinctness and separateness from the Labour Party of the time. Although Aitman’s article is pretty unsophisticated and cannot address the real historical dynamics of the NLWM, he did at least suggest the difference between the NLWM and a more debased ‘entryism’.
Militant felt it had to adapt itself to Labourism. This necessarily entailed a denial of its own independent existence as a specific formation with a distinct ideological and structural dynamic. The CPGB - although it occasionally seemed to want to pretend that non-CPGBers were running the NLWM show and was susceptible to some ‘rightist’ pressures - did not deny its own distinct organisation. Indeed, that separateness was the precondition for initiatives such as the NLWM. That logic also expressed itself programmatically.
I have many criticisms of the NLWM, but it was at least an attempt by the CPGB to bolster the Labour left and arm it with politics that cut against the grain of the militarism, monarchism and imperialism that had infected Labour. It could also be tough and uncompromising in its rhetoric. At the NLWM’s 1928 conference, non-communist chairman Will Crick promised: “We will purge the movement of every vestige of capitalism … and those who spend much of their time exploring the Sahara and cruising around the world, wining and dining with the most pronounced enemies of our class …”
To that end, it was very different to the type of Labour Party operation that I have been familiar with from my background in Trotskyism. Even in the mode of ‘shallow entry’ that I was exposed to, this involved an inability to tackle the thorny issues of ‘high politics’ relating to how we are ruled. Instead, there was an emphasis on lower-level campaigns, ‘struggles’ and actions - most with a set template of desiccated ‘transitional’ demands thrown in. Another example of ‘revolutionaries’ adopting the politics of left Labourism, in other words.
It is also worthwhile bearing in mind that the NLWM organised significant forces in the Labour Party. At its formal national launch in September 1926, it had official delegates from 52 local Labour parties, delegates from 40 other leftwing minority groups inside Labour and a weekly paper in the form of the Sunday Worker, with a claimed circulation of 80,000. It severely rattled the Labour right, which stepped up its persecution of leftwing activists, particularly those willing to associate with communists.
Why take on this project in the first place? You have looked in particular at the CPGB’s relationship to the first Labour government in 1924 - over 90 years ago now. Rather a lot has changed in political terms. The CPGB as was does not even exist any more. Is this project anything more than a historical curio?
That is a very difficult question to answer in some ways.
Direct parallels between then and today are mostly facile, and I am not very interested in that as a general method (although it is fine to draw certain limited parallels if the historical evidence warrants it). It seems to me that many on the left start from the opposite dimension. They begin with a parallel they wish to draw and try to find the evidence to support it.
Yes, a lot has changed in 80 years, but then a lot has not - the struggle between left and right in the Labour Party keeps recurring, for example. I suppose I am somewhat notorious in some circles for stubbornly chewing on historical curios, such as the CPGB’s post-war anti-revisionist movement.2 So the ‘curio’ charge does not really bother me!
In a sense, the NLWM does have the status of a relative ‘novelty item’ in the history of the CPGB. If people are aware of anything about the CPGB in the 1920s, they know of Lenin’s ‘hanged-man’ advice on affiliation to the Labour Party;3 the party’s role in the General Strike of 1926;4 and its adoption of disastrous ‘third period’ tactics in the late 1920s.5 Among Trotskyists there will also be a general narrative about ‘Stalinisation’ and the degeneration of the Comintern - some of which I share. Compared to this, the NLWM - and perhaps to a lesser extent the CPGB’s reaction to the first Labour government of 1924 - are relative blind spots.
I can understand this. On the surface, the General Strike and the debate inside the party over the third period are very dramatic. But, even where the NLWM does feature, it seems overshadowed by the ‘grander’ events around it. The Trotskyist, Brian Pearce - in many ways a pioneer of this kind of writing - authored The British Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929 in 1957.6 In it, Pearce does not really deal with any of the practical difficulties the NLWM was clearly facing by 1928. These practical problems were distinct from the trajectory a minority of CPGB members around Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt were on - this group began to tack leftwards, away from the NLWM and its perspective, at this time.
Instead, Pearce seems to paint the NLWM white to set against the looming darkness of the third period. Don’t misunderstand me: the NLWM was undoubtedly a healthier phase of CPGB activity than the idiocies of the third period. However, this approach scarcely allows the historian to reach an informed assessment of the real strengths and weaknesses of the NLWM. Similarly, Aitman, in the previously mentioned Militant article, suggests that some CPGB members were opposed to the NLWM in virulent, sectarian terms from the outset. I have not found any real evidence for this, although Dutt certainly tried to put a strong CPGB ‘stamp’ on the organisation from the start. This, in Aitman’s world at the time, would have been ‘sectarian’, because independent Marxist organisation outside the Labour Party was impermissible, according to Militant orthodoxy in the mid-1980s.
Aitman seems, in fact, to have been primarily concerned with guilt by association. He makes efforts to associate the NLWM with third-period sectarian lunacies. So the NLWM definitely has an element of curio, or the relative unknown, about it. I aim to fathom out the reason behind that.
You mentioned the programme of the NLWM. Could you expand on what the movement stood for?
The NLWM adopted a programme in 1926 that was not limited to the sort of tedious shopping list of narrow economic and minimal demands we have become used to from today’s left. Instead, it had a highly focused set of principled, ‘high politics’ demands. These would clearly delineate the Labour left from the monarchist and pro-imperialist practice of the right.
For example, the NLWM called for the abolition of the British empire and support for the struggles of the colonial masses; opposition to capitalist war credits; nationalisation of the banking and credit system; full political rights for police officers and those in the armed forces; full adult suffrage for both sexes; and the abolition of the House of Lords and monarchy. This was clearly an attempt to politically embolden the left of the Labour Party, not the CPGB adapting itself to the characteristic flakiness of Labour lefts. Also bear in mind that these would not exactly have been easy politics to fight for in the deferential and militaristic atmosphere of 1920s Britain.
Interestingly, I found a reference just the other day to Dutt in early 1929 characterising the programme of the NLWM as ‘centrist’. I had to laugh, considering how many ostensible revolutionary socialists today would consider such a programme to be wildly ultra-left!
What impact did the Comintern have on the CPGB in this period?
A fundamental one: I am not one of those revisionist historians seeking to prise apart the CPGB from its links to the Communist International and Moscow. If you do that, the history of the CPGB becomes largely inexplicable; it very obviously kept in broad step with shifts in the Comintern.
Also, there is clearly a process of Stalinisation going on from the mid-1920s. However, I do not have much patience with the idea - which has become a kind of unconscious common sense for many activists on the left - that things instantly went to pot after Lenin’s death in 1924. ‘Socialism in one country’ was a defining moment for the revolutionary potential of the Comintern; however, it took time for this degeneration to work itself through.
So, as I have written before, it is a positive thing that Zinoviev and the Comintern took the CPGB to task for its rightist and conciliatory attitude to the minority Labour government in 1924. This is true even if that advice may have been the result of other factors less directly related to keeping the CPGB on the straight and narrow, and more to do with factional manoeuvring in the Soviet party - eg, Moscow’s own disappointment with the MacDonald government; the fact that Trotsky had apparently been guilty of a right deviation in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and so on.
In a similar vein, I have found material in the Russian archives from the minutes of what it called the English Commission, where you can find Bukharin, as late as 1928, giving CPGB comrades reasonably sound advice on their relations with the Labour Party and the broader movement. I think this underlines a point about figures such as Zinoviev and Bukharin. Whatever disastrous choices they had made in the CPSU inner-party struggle of the 1920s, they were more than mere bureaucrats. Both had serious careers as revolutionaries. And, as far as I understand it, Zinoviev was a theoretical opponent of ‘socialism in one country’. However, this obscures a broader point.
The CPGB’s most disastrous inheritance from the Comintern in terms of its work in broader formations such as the NLWM actually came prior to Stalinisation. Specifically, the militarised and hyper-centralised conceptions of the party regime in the infamous ‘21 conditions’ agreed at the Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920.
How did this impact upon the NLWM?
Well, such martial conceptions of a political party are highly unlikely to breed organisations with a critical culture. Thus, when a party such as the CPGB interacted with the broader workers’ movement under the aegis of the united front in the 1920s, it was not able to sustain a consistent critical culture of ‘unity in diversity’ in relation to its prospective alliance partners. Attempts to do so would perforce destabilise its own party regime.
Therefore, early opportunist adaptation to the 1924 Labour government led to an ultra-leftist reaction from some members. Close proximity to the Labour Party disorientated CPGB members - spinning them in both rightist and leftist directions.
Unsurprisingly, this culture was transposed into the NLWM. For example, the minutes of the CPGB’s Holborn Labour Party fraction from February 1926 stress that CPGB members must maintain unanimity in Labour Party discussions. There were even arguments suggesting it was a problem if there was any disunity among the broader left wing at Labour Party meetings.
Keep in mind that in both cases we are probably only talking about discussions. Also that there would definitely have been political differences between CPGB members and other leftwingers in the NLWM. So we can see how problematic the CPGB found the practice of ‘unity in diversity’. The whole tendency was, ideologically at least, towards abstract unity, both internally and externally. Of course, the major dialectical irony was that these ultra-centralised concepts of party organisation engendered fragmentation and constant left/right flip-flopping. Plus endless bouts of corrective intervention from the CPGB leadership and the Comintern.
How did this flip-flopping concretely manifest itself in the ranks of the NLWM?
While the CPGB’s leadership was still arguing for the NLWM’s continued existence before its 10th congress in early 1929, it admitted that it had been difficult to counter the reformist illusions of non-CPGB members. In a similar vein, a huge debate in the Sunday Worker before and after the liquidation of the NLWM in 1929 shows that, while many Labourites had been prepared to work with the CPGB, some were actually quite prejudiced against the CPGB party organisation.
The original secretary of the NLWM, Tom Colyer, resigned with five others from the national committee at the end of 1926. They opposed the NLWM being tied to a CPGB-dominated Sunday Worker; so there were clear rightist pressures. When the NLWM was a fledgling movement in November 1925, a London meeting of Labour Party reps met to “discuss ways of bringing the Labour Party back to the idealism and fighting spirit of Keir Hardie”.
Now, clearly that could mean different things to different strands in the Labour Party. CPGB members could remember Keir Hardie primarily as an apostle of independent working class politics, while non-communist Labour members could read it as a more fundamental statement of identity. An instruction from the party’s London Trades Council and Labour Department in January 1926 told members working in the NLWM that they should be prepared to give and take on detailed matters of policy with non-communists. Also, that it was better for non-CPGB leftwingers to take the lead and that the communists should make them, the leftwingers, feel that they were running the whole show. So there was a certain tendency to soft-pedal CPGB politics and remain ‘hidden in plain sight’ so to speak.
The report in Workers’ Life - a CPGB weekly paper - of the NLWM’s September 1927 conference was keen to emphasise how few of the delegates were communists, which is actually quite delusional. There were also a number of complaints from inside the CPGB that its NLWM work was somewhat haphazard, and opposition to the right in the Labour Party was effectively being left to chance. Again, this kind of behaviour led to a leftist reaction from Dutt, in particular. Rather than sparing the NLWM the nuances and details of the CPGB, in 1925 he called for a far more ruthless approach to the left of the Labour Party and was obviously much more keen to emphasise a specific communist identity.
By October 1927, in a book entitled Socialism and the living wage, Dutt was predicting the imminent collapse of any basis for social democratic reforms and leadership. This posed, as he no doubt intended, questions for the future of the CPGB’s work in the NLWM. Also, I have found fragments of evidence that suggest some CPGB members did not bother themselves with the NLWM - a passive boycott. It is easy to imagine that these activists had the leftist sentiments of earlier unofficial tendencies in the CPGB, which reacted to rightwing deviations by disparaging work in the Labour Party. So there is a certain amount of evidence to suggest this classic right/left dichotomy.
To what extent would these political differences have been the common property of the movement as a whole? LPM believes in transparency and openness on political disagreements - it plays a role in the self-education of a working class that we want to see running society. What was the CPGB’s practice in this period?
I have talked about the negative consequences of the militaristic, top-down model of organisation in the Comintern and its affiliate parties. However, there was another trend operating in the CPGB - a relative openness towards the broader workers’ movement in terms of its ideological divisions. Of course, this could never be presented in terms of factional differences after the banning of factions in Soviet party in 1921, but rather as a matter of individual disagreements or those of small episodic groupings.
I am unsure as to the precise source of this healthier strain, although I was struck in this regard by Mike Macnair’s observation in his book Revolutionary strategy7that much of what the Russians attempted to teach the Comintern in the 1920-23 period was orthodox Kautskyism. Also there were, of course, plenty of healthy examples from the history of Bolshevism to draw upon in this regard.
What this meant was that you could often read about the CPGB’s internal differences in its various open journals and, although this was less present in weekly papers such as Workers’ Weekly and Workers’ Life, you can occasionally see reports there of inner-party meetings and political differences being referred to. This was the case throughout the period of the 1920s. The broader, although still clearly communist, Sunday Worker also had major open debates, not least on the future of the NLWM in 1928-29, and had a genuinely lively letters page. This was not just filled with anecdotal observations to back up whatever the CPGB’s line was - in vivid contrast to the deathly dull letters pages in publications such as The Socialist and Socialist Worker, which one would only read out of mild desperation.
So, a rank-and-file CPGB member, or an interested reader in, say, the Labour Party, could fairly easily understand, with a little close reading, the political differences in the organisation and in the leadership at particular junctures. A few years ago, I think it was Ian Birchall, during his debate with the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party in the aftermath of the Martin Smith imbroglio, who raised the point that the CPGB had allowed open debate in its publications in its year of big crisis in 1956. If the Stalinist CPGB could allow this, why couldn’t the SWP?
However, this obscures the fact that the CPGB hosted open debates in its publications not just in 1956, but throughout the 1920s and in the post-World War II period. It was something normal for the CPGB, albeit such debate was hosted on the leadership’s terms and within its terms of reference. Either comrade Birchall was genuinely unaware of this or he wanted to save the SWP tradition from being even more compromised than it already was. Certainly, the CPGB in its ‘Leninist’ mode was much more open than the ‘Leninist’ SWP has been since the late 1980s.
Moving back to the NLWM, you talked at Communist University about how the orientation became something of a trap for the CPGB. How did the movement develop?
As I have suggested already, you did have various leadership figures such as Dutt reading smoke signals from Moscow and tacking left. But even if that pressure had not been there, I am extremely doubtful that the CPGB’s line on Labour Party work would have been unchallenged or unchecked, although I suspect it would not have taken the eventual absurd form of calling Labour members ‘social fascists’.
The NLWM, in particular, was turning into a partial trap for the CPGB. Conditions inside the Labour Party itself were pushing the CPGB to the left. At the beginning of 1928, the CPGB, as far as I can see, attempted to draw up a balance sheet of its activities in the Labour Party and the NLWM. When it did so it was obviously confronting a radically different terrain from, say, 1923. The right had been on the offensive since the mid-1920s. This meant, concretely, that CPGB members could not run as Labour election candidates without the sanction of the national Labour leadership - which was very unlikely; they could not enter the Labour Party openly as communists; CPGB trade unionists could not sit on the executive of a divisional or local Labour organisation; and no communist trade unionist could go to conference as a delegate from a local Labour Party.
However, CPGB members could go to the national conference as delegates from their trade unions - Harry Pollitt went to the 1928 Labour Party conference under the aegis of the boilermakers’ union; and CPGB trade unionists could attend general council meetings and conferences to select parliamentary candidates.
This was a much more difficult terrain for the CPGB to be working in to expand its influence. Also in the CPGB’s literature of the time appears the complaint that those local Labour organisations prepared to implement the decisions of its 1925 conference and exclude communists were having trouble mobilising their most active members due to demoralisation after the removal of the ‘best fighters’ (ie, the CPGB).
When I first came across this I was sceptical, but the complaint recurs on a number of occasions. I think that what it really suggests is that the CPGB was having problems mobilising its closer sympathisers in Labour. Witch-hunts are strange phenomena though - the examples I have personally experienced seem sometimes to have had a deflating and demoralising effect on the people doing the actual witch-hunting; and often the only thing uniting witch-hunters is hatred of witches. So after the witches are burned …
What specific impact did the right’s drive to disaffiliate those local Labour Party organisations that refused to expel communists have on the NLWM?
A very profound one, I think. By September 1927, the great bulk of the membership of the NLWM came from precisely those disaffiliated Labour locals who were unwilling to countenance the removal of communists from their ranks. There is a rider to this though, in that the NLWM, by its September 1928 conference, still represented, on paper, 21 official Labour parties, as against 15 disaffiliated parties, and 45 leftwing groups presumably existing as minorities in local Labour parties. Although the CPGB and thus the NLWM were formally determined to support the disaffiliated groups in remaining active and organised - in some cases they stood against scab candidates of the Labour right in London elections, for example - they were not internally gung-ho about this.
Evidence from the London district sees the CPGB talking about the disastrous consequences for certain branches caused by disaffiliation. Also there was a clear impatience shown with those in the Labour Party who seemed unprepared to do some basic manoeuvring to stay inside the official Labour structures. CPGB members also seem to have drifted away from disaffiliated leftwing groups on occasion. These disaffiliated branches were refused readmission to the Labour Party proper.
So inevitably the NLWM had become something of a political trap for the CPGB, meaning a large section of its militants were siloed off from the Labour Party proper. Because of this, it came to be seen by CPGB members on the left of the party as a kind of ‘shadow’ Communist Party, with its own leadership, structures and organisation. Idris Cox, himself a vice-chair of a disaffiliated Labour branch in Maesteg and CPGB South Wales organiser, called it, negatively, a kind of “special lane” and preparatory school for the CPGB - clearly implying that it was actually an impediment. Cox was arguing at the CPGB’s January 1929 congress and his words do have a leftist taint - but he had a point in relation to the circumstances of the NLWM at that time.
By early 1928, the CPGB clearly saw the NLWM as a problematic formation. If you read between the lines of a thesis from the central committee called ‘Ourselves and the Labour Party’ from February 1928, you can see the CPGB essentially conceding that the NLWM was an organisation of communist sympathisers and, in some ways, a ‘shadow party’. However it might be defined, it certainly was not thought of as a genuine mass organisation in the Labour movement. JR Campbell also wrote that, in relation to the 1927 Labour Party conference, the NLWM was not strong enough to get its own resolutions onto the conference floor; rather it was mostly fighting and reacting against the resolutions of the right.
So how did the end of the NLWM come about?
The NLWM looked to be a dead duck by 1928, with the rider that its paper, the Sunday Worker, was still an effective means of engaging a bigger Labour audience.
However, the struggle to reaffiliate the branches would have felt like banging your head against the wall. It was not plausible to simply carry on and loyally support and vote for all the scab Labour candidates in the circumstances of the Labour right’s offensive against the left. As JT Murphy rightly pointed out at the time, to carry on in an impassive, business-as-usual manner in those particular circumstances was not any sort of true united front - not that the CPGB would have been able to take part in any principled united front, of course. Rather, it just amounted to the subjection of the left and the CPGB to the right’s offensive.
The CPGB needed to continue its work in the Labour Party in 1929 in my estimation, but the NLWM as it existed by then had become a partial block to such activity. However, at the party’s January 1929 congress the CPGB’s executive committee recommended that the NLWM should continue as an organisation, but the rank and file defeated the resolution by 55 votes to 52. This was mainly, according to reports, on the grounds that the NLWM was thought of as redundant and the idea that it did nothing the CPGB could not do itself.
The national committee of the NLWM formally wound the body up in March 1929. There was, however, a significant coda to this outcome in the form of a major debate in the Sunday Worker, with many letters of complaint being printed against the NLWM liquidation. What this reflected was that there had been a significant number of left Labour activists who had been prepared to cooperate with the CPGB to fight the right. Although they were not likely to join the party, these comrades had been defined by their struggle alongside the NLWM. The CPGB was now effectively marooning this group, and confusing it at the same time. So one should not run away with the idea that the NLWM was merely the CPGB in another guise. It was more than that.
1. ‘Labour’s purge of the 1920s’ Militant April 18 1986.
2. See L Parker The kick inside: revolutionary opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 London 2012.
4. See http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/623/80-years-since-the-general-strike-from-world-war-t.