Sectarianism and secession

Programmatically weak politics only helped reinforce the CPGB’s ultimate sectarianism after its re-entry into the Labour Party in the late 1930s, writes Lawrence Parker

The first part of this article1 used the example of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s mass entry into the Labour Party in the late 1930s to suggest there was no change in substance in the nature of communist politics in the popular front era.

The CPGB had a mode of organisation - bureaucratic centralism, dressed up as ‘democratic centralism’ - that meant it consistently veered between opportunism and sectarianism when working in the broader movement. This was clearly present in the 1930s and was commented upon by the CPGB itself. Furthermore, the CPGB’s influence inside the Labour Party was not just the outcome of a wholly organic drift of the rank and file towards the communists; rather it was also a result of the CPGB organising itself inside and alongside Labour. Working inside the Labour League of Youth, the Labour Party’s youth organisation, the CPGB and the Young Communist League had some conspicuous success through their militant defiance of Labour’s national executive committee and by 1937 young communists were in control of the LLOY.

Despite the pugnacious stance of the leading CPGB/YCL faction in the LLOY in refusing to be bound by the NEC, the politics it espoused were notably weak. For example, in what was hailed as a “historic move” in August 1936, the ‘unofficial’ national committee of the LLOY proposed a new charter for the league.2 This vague document contained the following recommended priorities:

Over a year later, an article in Advance was, again, guilty of over-hyping the - slightly fuller - youth charter of the British Youth Peace Assembly (a CPGB front) as “youth’s Magna Carta”. This called for:

Such immediate programmes, bounded by the overall popular front strategy of adaptation to all kinds of social forces, did not represent any kind of break with the mainstream of the labour movement and it is difficult to see such collections of demands being offensive to anyone in the Labour Party. So what was qualitatively different about the YCL’s leadership of the LLOY, apart from its defiance of the Labour NEC and determined activism around organisations such as the Spanish Youth Foodship Committee? The answer to this question probably only lies in the sectarianism that the YCL faction displayed in the LLOY when more fundamental issues of communist identity were at stake.

When Advance writers turned their attention to the Soviet Union, enthusiasm knew no bounds. One article on the subject of young people in the Soviet Union was headlined: ‘The happiest youth in the world,’5 while it is difficult to gauge the precise excitement of Advance readers when they were told things such as: “There is hardly a youth in the USSR who has not jumped with a parachute.”6 Alexander Baron, a member of the YCL faction in the LLOY, who was assistant editor and then editor of Advance in the late 1930s, offered up a very jaundiced fictional account of these happenings in The in-between time (1971).7 However, judging by what appeared in Advance, some of Baron’s fictional account rings true. The protagonist of Baron’s novel visits a London communist hall, where he finds a group of LLOY members attending a study circle on the 1936 Soviet constitution:

… the other members of the circle listened with rapt faces, as if bathed in some religious light; and their eager answers to the lecturer’s questions had the innocent, sycophantic sound in them that small children make when they are vying with their answers in class out of eagerness to please teacher.8

Baron also shows this culture’s darker side, when he writes of communist members of the LLOY moving against a wounded Spanish Civil War veteran who has been classed as a ‘deserter’ after leaving the International Brigades and having political disagreements with the CPGB.9 Again, this is not at all far-fetched, as the LLOY became infected with some of the atmosphere of purges and heresy hunting. The article shown above talking of the happiness of Soviet youth also contained the following: “Treacherous wreckers and fascist foes try to rob [Soviet youth] of their happy life, but we are with them in their fight to preserve it.”10

Such an atmosphere became worse when the YCL faction of the LLOY turned its attention to a tiny Trotskyist group working in its ranks around the Youth Militant paper.11 Ted Willis, leader of the faction and national chair of the LLOY, put the Trotskyist ‘wrecking’ activities (which do not seem to have been much more sinister than submitting resolutions and publishing a newspaper) in the specific context of the Moscow trials:

Like all other Trotskyist groups they are a tiny minority, entirely divorced from the rank and file of the masses. Mainly middle class types, their record is one of disruption, cleverly taking advantage of the weakness of the [Labour] League [of Youth] to insinuate themselves into its organisation.12

By the 1937 national conference of the LLOY on May 8-9, the atmosphere deteriorated further when the Trotskyist group put up a resolution that approved the uprising against the republican government then taking place in Barcelona. This brought YCL leader John Gollan - closely supervising the work of Willis and others - into the fray: “The Youth Militant supporters must be seen in their true light of splitters and disrupters, and cleared out of the youth movement.”13 Willis took a similar tack: “In the self-governing League of Youth that we’re fighting for there’ll be no room for people who’ve exposed themselves as traitors to the working class.”14

This double-talk of self-government/heresy by Willis and Gollan points to the absurd ideological position the YCL was in. Self-government was effectively a demand for the Labour NEC to recognise diversity in the movement and a youth wing that might wish to take a different political tack from the adult party. In practice and in the context of the LLOY in 1937, it meant the Labour leadership ceding control of its youth organisation to the YCL, and thus the CPGB. However, diversity was not something that the YCL could possibly concede to its opponents on the left, who might disagree with some of its fundamental beliefs on the nature of the Soviet Union and its activities in curtailing other revolutionary trends in Spain. Neither could the LLOY’s leading YCL faction countenance any real diversity in programmatic terms or in its day-to-day activity - it existed on a diet of a vague left reformism and loyalty to CPGB-favoured campaigns, such as those around Spain. In such a context, the whole idea of self-government of the LLOY becomes chimerical.

World War II

To return to our main theme, the YCL/CPGB’s work in the LLOY was an attempt to practise popular front politics that very obviously was not a break with the past. In fact, it was a classic rerun of organisational and ideological dynamics first established in the 1920s. Internal rigidity on the part of the communists merely led to external rigidity in the form of the opportunism/sectarianism couplet.

What happened to the CPGB and YCL members working in the Labour Party, as World War II approached? Noreen Branson has an answer of sorts. She says that such a practice continued until after the outbreak of the war in 1939.15 This is correct in the sense that people such as Charlotte Haldane, who classed herself as a “crypto-communist”16 (ie, not an open member of the CPGB), were still, as Labour members and councillors, under CPGB discipline by 1940, with Haldane working as a councillor within a strong communist fraction in the South-West St Pancras Labour Party in north London.17 However, Branson is also factually incorrect in the sense that the CPGB startied yanking its members out of the Labour Party as early as July 1939 (ie, just before the outbreak of World War II).

Branson, by now branching off into the realms of make-believe, says:

Though no public statement was made on the matter [dual membership of the CPGB and Labour Party], it was evidently concluded that to continue with such a practice would be a mistake. It laid the [CPGB] open to charges of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘subversion’ … There was also the danger that it would undermine the campaign for the affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party …18

If the CPGB was really concerned with its reputation with the Labour Party, then why did it very publicly yank out activists who held dual membership in what seems to have been two concerted campaigns in July-August 1939 and May 1940? As we shall see, the CPGB said that Labour members who agreed with its policy should leave Labour for the CPGB - a fairly pristine sectarianism. (Given that such campaigns were simply a matter of public record in the Daily Worker, it is highly inconceivable that Branson would have been unaware of these events both as a party member of the time and a historian looking back.)

Of course, for those who have followed the argument of this article closely, these actions will not come as any kind of surprise, as the CPGB merely reverted to type - unable to countenance any notion of ‘unity of diversity’, since it became obvious the Labour leadership was not going to follow the tactical advice of the communists in 1939-40, the CPGB and YCL flipped over from relative adaptation to sectarianism.

Also worth bearing in mind in relation to Branson’s argument is her implication that the CPGB was concerned in 1939 with respectability in the bourgeois sense of the word, in terms of accepting the proprietorial ‘rights’ that the Labour leadership expected over what it saw as its terrain. In fact, while the CPGB was affected by eddies and swirls of respectability in its popular front politics, it cannot be thought of in this period as ‘respectable’ per se. An organisation overly concerned with being ‘respectable’ would simply not have contested the battleground of the Labour Party by sending in its members. Also, whatever its rapid tactical shift at the start of World War II - from supporting a ‘popular’ war against fascism to a formal policy of opposing the imperialist war - was, it certainly was not the product of an organisation overly concerned with the niceties of being ‘respectable’. The CPGB’s rather dramatic two fingers to the Labour Party in 1939-40 only serves to seal the argument. Branson is very obviously emoting CPGB sentiment, as it had evolved up to 1985, and not that of the party in 1939-40.

Thompson is also caught in this trap, when discussing the defection of Willis and other LLOY members to the YCL. He says the “CP leadership did everything in its power” to persuade these comrades to remain inside Labour.19 Thompson simply takes this as good coin from an interview with Bob Horne, listed as a member of an unspecified “League of Youth committee”.20 Thompson very clearly has not read the primary sources relating to this episode, stating that it happened in “early 1939”,21 when Willis and others actually left in July 1939.22 As we shall see in detail below, the primary sources simply show the LLOY cohort leaving alongside communists in the adult party in what was obviously a concerted and sectarian campaign. There is no sense of a disapproving CPGB or of these actions being kept under wraps - precisely the opposite: activists such as Willis were positively publicised for their actions. However, for a Eurocommunist such as Thompson, such actions do not fit his soft, ‘non-sectarian’ template of the popular front and so they have to be explained away in a manner that does not match with the historical record.

In July 1939, Stafford Cripps noted in the pages of Tribune that “hundreds of members” of the LLOY and “a considerable number of adult members” had left the Labour Party since its Southport conference in May-June 1939 (which had decisively rejected the CPGB policy of a broad, cross-class popular front against the then government) to either drop out of politics or else join “some other working class organisation”.23 In fact, the vast majority of these activists had left to join the CPGB and, in all probability, were ‘hidden’ members, who had become communists a considerable time before. This can be the only conclusion from the way that the Daily Worker reported these departures, which also shows how these comrades were being withdrawn as part of a concerted campaign to try and create the impression that there was some kind of ‘natural’ exodus of Labour members to the CPGB and, presumably, to encourage others to follow the same path.

AE Gower - who was on the executive of Manchester Labour, its prospective parliamentary candidate for Stretford and “actively associated with the campaign for a people’s front since [its] inception” - recorded that he had applied to join the CPGB. He said:

… I am firmly convinced that, unless the British working class builds a revolutionary party strong enough to create working class unity and the broader people’s front, then there is every danger that the present pro-Chamberlain leadership of the labour movement will lead us to the same disasters that befell the German labour movement.24

These activists were not being presented as confused as to their future course or direction (as one might expect in any genuine mass exodus). Rather they were offered up as clones parroting communist dogma. Thus Gower said:

I have been profoundly impressed by reading the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which so clearly shows that only the leadership of the Communist Party made possible the winning of power by the working class and the building of the socialist, classless society.25

Others spoke in a similar vein. For example, another report said that RJ Lawrence, chairman of Watford divisional Labour Party, had taken the step of leaving Labour because “he entirely agreed with the policy of the Communist Party”.26

As July proceeded, other departures were formally recorded in the Daily Worker: notably Hector Prickett, secretary of Oxford City Labour Party27; Ted Willis, national chairman of the LLOY, who had joined the YCL, along with many others, including a group from Glasgow (who voiced displeasure at a recent reduction of the LLOY age limit to 21 and another injunction to stop the LLOY collaborating with the YCL)28; and a bigger group around RJ Lawrence in the Watford Labour Party.29 This wave carried on into August, with more defections being noted in Southall, Middlesex; Hackney, London; Westminster St George’s (LLOY); Gloucester; Aston, Birmingham (LLOY)30; Clapham, London (LLOY)31; Putney, London32; Portsmouth (LLOY); Hollingbury, Brighton33; Reading; Benfleet34; Maidstone (LLOY)35; and Hastings (LLOY).36

These departures were dressed up in doublethink as a move towards unity and strengthening the Labour Party and, indeed, Pollitt led a renewed attempt to affiliate to the Labour Party in July 1939.37 Willis tried to explain this away in a response to the Tribune article by Cripps referred to above, with shades of the old dogma of the ‘united front from below’: “In the past we have tended to have a too formal conception of unity - we have seen it too much in terms of resolutions and petitions - and not in terms of the active mass unity of the people.”38 A Daily Worker editorial noted that the departures had been described in some quarters as “desertions of the labour movement”.39 It went on:

It is clear … that [those who have joined the CPGB] are not arguing that it is impossible to work for working class unity inside the Labour Party. What they have said is that they can work better for working class unity by building a strong Communist Party, with which the Labour Party could not refuse to negotiate.40

The editorial added that its ‘new’ ex-Labour members “are making no general appeal for workers, who are not willing to accept the full communist policy and join the Communist Party, to leave the Labour Party”.41 However, the implication is that a proportion of the ones who could accept communist policy were being encouraged to withdraw.

In reality, the CPGB simply could not pose both ways. It was well nigh impossible to claim the ‘desertions’ were an act of unity, when those communists had been embedded in local Labour parties and, in many cases, leading their work for a few years. It is unlikely that left-leaning members of the Labour rank and file not inclined to join the CPGB would have looked upon such departures as anything else than ‘desertion’ that caused damage to the movement. Morgan argues: “The effect of these resignations was quite disproportionate to the relatively small numbers involved, for they were drawn from the active minority whose efforts kept the Labour Party going at grassroots level.”42 Harold Laski, writing in 1946, maybe had these types of shenanigans in mind, when he asked if unity with communists meant “the Labour Party is to be driven by the kind of intrigue and double dealing to which socialists have become accustomed”.43


However, this was not the immediate end of the CPGB’s work inside the Labour Party. As we have seen, certain members, such as Haldane, had been kept in place inside the CPGB after it had shifted its line towards opposition to the imperialist war and - rhetorically at least - to a version of ‘Leninist’ revolutionary politics, interlarded with large chunks of its previous popular front stance.44

By May 1940 and as the Labour Party was on the verge of its Whitsun conference in Bournemouth that year, the CPGB was most probably making reference to its own forces when it talked of a group of militant delegates that would “not allow the issues to be clouded over”.45 It added: “They will put the full demands of revolutionary socialism in such a way that will reach the hearts of Labour Party members.”46 There were also resolutions heard at the conference that seem extremely likely to have been pushed by CPGB members or close supporters: for example, Hodge from North Croydon Labour Party moved a resolution pledging the Labour Party to defend the Soviet Union against capitalist aggression.47

However, this only led to another wave of communist-inspired resignations from the Labour Party, formally because of Labour’s pro-war policy and its decision to participate in the British war government. Again, these activists were mostly reported as joining the CPGB. And, again, the Daily Worker made sure they sounded like communist monotones. For example, Tom Poulton, secretary of the Sussex Federation of Labour Parties, said: “Since last August the Labour Party has not only neglected no opportunities, it has created false opportunities, for the most venomous and unprincipled abuse of the Soviet Union.”48

Some of these departures seem as if the CPGB might have been publicly setting up certain prominent individuals for expulsion. For example, Manchester city councillor John Owen was expelled - formally at least - for presiding over a Daily Worker rally at the Free Trade Hall49; while councillor Howard Hill from Sheffield experienced a similar fate after also taking the chair at another Daily Worker rally.50 Other reported departures included Labour officials in Kingston51; a councillor in Bow, London52; and a councillor and local party secretary in North Kensington Labour Party.53 By June 1940, the CPGB’s general secretary, Rajani Palme Dutt, was arguing that CPGB comrades in the Labour Party should come out into the open to fight for the party’s policy.54

However, sectarian in inspiration as these further withdrawals in 1940 were, they were also probably lodged in a degree of pragmatism, as the Labour Party machine began to rust over due to wartime dislocation55 and the political truce the leadership had called - meaning that local parties would not be involved in their electoral raison d’être for a few years. This was remarked upon by a number of contributors to the Daily Worker. Tom Poulton, lately the secretary of the Sussex Federation of Labour Parties, argued in May 1940: “these purely electioneering bodies [in the Labour Party] find themselves with hardly any justification for their existence”.56 By July 1940, recently expelled Manchester councillor Jack Owen complained of Labour: “Political activity has ceased in our party.”57

Our enthusiasts for the popular front-era CPGB may object that the events of 1940 were part of the sectarian turn of the party after it had decided to oppose the inter-imperialist World War II; however, as will be readily appreciated, the events of May 1940 unfolded in exactly the same manner as those of July-August 1939, even down to the rhetoric used. This expresses a key theme of this discussion. Communist politics were being structured by something much more profound than the particular tactics or ‘line’ (united front, third period, popular front and so on) being employed at any one point. The Comintern codification of ‘democratic centralism’ and the CPGB’s constant renewal of this continually pulled its practice away from ‘unity in diversity’ towards either opportunist adaptation or sectarianism.

The planned campaigns of resignation were not the end of the CPGB’s attempts to relate to the Labour rank and file in the early part of the war. The communists still had the issue of relating to those who did not want to join the CPGB. In February 1940, Dutt was already talking of the need for a Socialist Labour Alliance to relate to sincere socialists in the Labour Party prepared to oppose the Labour leadership.58 This was the first inkling of the People’s Convention, which took place in April 1941. Indeed, prominent figures in the movement, such as MP DN Pritt (expelled from the Labour Party in 1940 over his support for the Soviet invasion of Finland), were keen to stress that the People’s Convention was “not intended to take the place of, or in any way weaken, the existing industrial, cooperative or political organisations of the working class”.59 Space precludes a detailed discussion of the politics of the convention, but it seems fairly clear that the CPGB was moving back into a cycle of adaptation to the Labour left and others, with the convention’s vague, cross-class, pacifist rhetoric of defending ‘the people’s’ living standards, a ‘people’s’ peace and suchlike.60

The end of World War II was a watershed of sorts for the tactic of holding dual membership in the CPGB and the Labour Party, in that these endeavours never again seemed to have been seriously considered or attempted. In some senses, this is rather surprising, in that, post-war, the necessity of relating to and leading the Labour left, in the cause of bringing to power leftward-moving Labour governments, was to become firmly enshrined in the CPGB’s strategy.

By the 1960s and 1970s this had become a problem of respectability - the CPGB’s leadership was desperately concerned not to upset the rightwing gatekeepers of the Labour Party and frothed impotently at Trotskyist entrist organisations of that era. We have recently seen the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain issue instructions to its membership not to do anything to embarrass the Corbyn leadership, let alone embark on dual membership.

As we have seen, one thing the CPGB understood well in the 1930s was that it was simply impossible to persuade reformists to accept communists on the basis that the communists were harmless. Despite the CPGB’s manifold and grievous flaws in the 1930s, we can at least conclude that it was made of much sterner stuff than its deluded ‘heirs’.


1. ‘Up close and personal’ Weekly Worker May 18.

2. ‘Historic move by national committee: a new charter for the league’ Advance August 1936.

3. Ibid.

4. ‘Here is youth’s Magna Charta’ Advance October 1937.

5. R Ellis, ‘The happiest youth in the world’ Advance March 1937.

6. ‘Laddie’, ‘I look on’ Advance November 1936.

7. Baron suggested sexual manipulation on the part of the CPGB towards its young female members - a theme also present in Rosie Hogarth (1951). Gollan, whom Baron would have known in the 1930s, is apparently satirised in Seeing life (1958).

8. A Baron The in-between time London 1974, p94.

9. Ibid pp111-12.

10. R Ellis, ‘The happiest youth in the world’ op cit.

11. Charlie Van Gelderen and others formed the Youth Militant Group, the publisher of the paper, in 1936. The East Islington branch of the LLOY had a strong Trotskyist presence.

12. T Willis, ‘We have our wreckers too!’ Advance March 1937. See T Willis, ‘Clear them out!’ Advance April 1937 for more of the same.

13. J Gollan, ‘What next for youth unity?’ Advance June 1937. For the Trotskyist view of Spanish events in the LLOY, see C Van Gelderen, ‘Spain - a Trotskyist view’ Advance August 1937; this article was contextualised by a statement from the Advance editors.

14. ‘Frank Budd looks back at the national conference’ Advance June 1937.

15. N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 London 1985, p157.

16. C Haldane Truth will out London 1949, p182. Haldane said that, as a Labour councillor under CPGB discipline, she had supported the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, p268.

17. Ibid p183.

18. N Branson op cit p157.

19. W Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London 1992, p57.

20. Ibid p227.

21. Ibid p57.

22. ‘Ted Willis joins Young Communists’ Daily Worker July 14 1939.

23. S Cripps, ‘Labour Party “desertions”’ Tribune July 21 1939. Willis later said that, despite all these LLOY departures to the YCL, “… the extraordinary thing is that the YCL did not show any appreciable growth. It was a mystery, rather like Pharaoh’s dream of the seven thin cows who ate the seven fat cows and grew no fatter” - see T Willis Whatever happened to Tom Mix? London 1970, p170. However, it was reported that the YCL’s membership “increased dramatically to new heights” in 1937-38, which coincided with the YCL becoming the leading force in the LLOY after organising the rebellion against the Labour NEC; in other words, those who subsequently defected in 1939 had already perhaps become communists at an earlier stage - A Thorpe, ‘The membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-1945’ The Historical Journal Vol 43, No 3, 2000, p783.

24. ‘Labour candidate applies to join Communist Party’ Daily Worker July 7 1939.

25. Ibid.

26. Daily Worker July 20 1939.

27. ‘Oxford Labour leader joins Communist Party: step to make Labour stronger’ Daily Worker July 13 1939.

28. ‘Ted Willis joins Young Communists’ Daily Worker July 14 1939; and ‘Glasgow youth leaders join communists’ Daily Worker July 29 1939.

29. Daily Worker July 20 1939.

30. ‘Youth branches join up’ Daily Worker August 2 1939.

31 Daily Worker August 3 1939.

32. ‘To work for unity’ Daily Worker August 4 1939.

33. ‘52 join up with Young Communists’ Daily Worker August 7 1939.

34. ‘Labour leaders move for unity’ Daily Worker August 11 1939.

35. ‘Labour youth form YCL’ Daily Worker August 16 1939.

36. Daily Worker August 24 1939.

37. ‘We can fight side by side - and win’ Daily Worker July 15 1939.

38. ‘No desertion, but move for unity’ Daily Worker July 25 1939.

39. ‘Why they came to communism’ Daily Worker July 27 1939.

40. Ibid. This, or course, became the dogma of the CPGB in the post-war decades: build ‘unity’ by abstaining from the struggle inside the Labour Party.

41. Ibid.

42. K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics 1935-41 Manchester 1989, p198.

43. H Laski The secret battalion: an examination of the communist attitude to the Labour Party London 1946, p27.

44. See K Morgan op cit pp85-253 for a detailed analysis of CPGB politics in the early part of the war.

45. ‘Labour feeling against war grows’ Daily Worker May 7 1940.

46. Ibid. Also see ‘Labour Party conference manoeuvres’ Daily Worker May 8 1940.

47. ‘Booing greets Blum at Labour Party conference’ Daily Worker May 16 1940.

48. ‘Disgusted by Labour action’ Daily Worker May 24 1940.

49. ‘Labour councillor expelled’ Daily Worker May 17 1940.

50. ‘Councillor resigns from the Labour Party’ Daily Worker May 30 1940.

51. ‘Officials quit Labour over war issue’ Daily Worker May 22 1940.

52. ‘Labour councillor signs nomination paper for communist’ Daily Worker June 1 1940.

53. ‘Two leave Labour’ Daily Worker June 3 1940.

54. K Morgan op cit p198.

55. In the context of Coventry, James Hinton argues: “The enormous movement of men and women around the country, caused by conscription, evacuation and transfer of labour, disrupted the local networks on which Labour Party organisation was based.” See J Hinton, ‘Coventry communism: a study of factory politics in the Second World War’ History Workshop Journal Vol 10, No 1, 1980.

56. ‘Electoral or political truce’ Daily Worker May 6 1940.

57. ‘A plain talk to Labour Party members’ Daily Worker July 1 1940.

58. K Morgan op cit p202.

59. DN Pritt Forward to a people’s government London 1941, p16.

60. Morgan’s attempt to picture the People’s Convention as a kind of successor to the National Left Wing Movement of the mid-1920s is completely erroneous for the reasons sketched out in the first part of this article: ie, the qualitative difference between the revolutionary programme the CPGB used in the NLWM to attempt to mould the Labour left and its later reliance on programmatic demands, designed to simply adapt to the consciousness of the Labour left. The People’s Convention is very obviously an example of the latter. See K Morgan op cit p201.