'A party with socialists in it: a history of the Labour left' by Simon Hannah (Pluto Press 2018, pp288, £12.99)
Simon Hannah’s book on the history of the Labour left is an enjoyable and well-written work that makes the author a rare commodity in the Labour Party. Very few of the activist generation around the organisation since the beginning of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension in summer 2015 (whether they be refugees from the far left, reactivated Labour lefts or political virgins) have been willing to interrogate their history seriously. True, shadow chancellor John McDonnell does offer a foreword, but barely manages to wheeze through a selection of airy platitudes.
Having said that, there are some huge problems with this book. This is due to the remnants of a corrosive culture on the far left, where periods of history are mined in a utilitarian manner as signposts to the future. This is formulated by Hannah in the following manner: “Given the nature of contemporary events [in the Labour Party], it is also a history that is being lived in relation to a future that is not yet determined” (pxiv). The alternative is to think seriously about the specific character of historical periods, actors and forces, which does at least offer the historian a chance to work out what has been transcended and preserved for the future. Hannah does grope towards this method when he says that the 2017 Labour Party manifesto, For the many not the few, was a “fully costed, tax-and-spend manifesto depicting a return to a mixed economy and a more equitable form of capitalism - in short, Keynesianism” (p234). Indeed, the rhetoric around an alternative vision of society in the form of a version of socialism traditional to the Labour left - and, indeed, promoted by the party when it has been controlled by the Labour right in years gone by - has been largely absent from the Corbyn leadership. However, despite the fact that it is transparently obvious that the Labour left down the years has had qualitatively different characteristics in different periods, Hannah still manages to lump them all together.
The author says that he approaches “the dynamic at the core of the left-right division in terms of a struggle between transformative and integrative tendencies. It is an account of those who have fought for Labour to adopt a transformative agenda, through far-reaching economic, social, constitutional and political changes that challenge the existing power relations in society” (pxiv). Therefore, we end up with an absurd method, whereby the communist-organised left in the Labour Party in the 1920s can be partially equated with the modern Labour left around Momentum. Of course, such a methodology ultimately ends up as a consolatory sop to the current Labour left, which does not like being confronted by the actual moderation underneath its radical veneer.
Neither does this schema work in assessing the historical left-right division in Labour. Whatever its assorted faults (and Hannah thankfully does not subscribe to the Spirit of 45 mythology of recent years), the administration of Clement Attlee was surely at least partly transformative by Hannah’s definition; similarly, as suggested before, the Labour Party as a whole has had a transformative ideology for parts of its history.
This methodological error has a major consequence for Hannah’s narrative, in that his history can be characterised as ‘CPGB-lite’, given that the old Communist Party of Great Britain, particularly before World War II, was a major organiser and inspiration of the Labour left. (Even Corbyn’s strategy is fundamentally a version of the CPGB’s old British road to socialism.) Lumped into Hannah’s transformative/integrative schema - and negotiating the perils of an over-reliance on secondary literature - we perceive very little of the specific contours of the CPGB-organised left. This makes for a succession of misunderstandings and omissions.
Therefore, when Hannah turns his attention to the National Left Wing Movement (NLWM), set up by the CPGB in 1925-26 to pull the Labour rank and file towards communist politics and, by that token, to build a mass Communist Party, its contours seem dictated by the soft Labour left of this period. Hannah says: “... the NLWM argued that it was not an alternative to Labour, and was trying to be supportive, but it wanted to move the party ‘nearer to the heart’s desire of the rank and file’” (pp41-42). It would be more correct to state that such views were those of the CPGB ‘right’ - usually those who had previously been members of the British Socialist Party (and thus members of the Labour Party) prior to the CPGB’s foundation.
It was this trend (best represented by the group of Bethnal Green Communists led by councillor Joe Vaughan that initially founded the forerunner of the NLWM in London) that tended to become what is best expressed as communist-Labour activists (the MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, was also part of this trend). These were CPGB/Labour Party members (often with significant local support in their Constituency Labour Parties, trades councils and communities) who exhibited a definite loyalty to Labour and tended to express it through ideas of returning Labour to the legacy of Keir Hardie, rank-and-file control of Labour governments and so on.
But this was not what the NLWM was set up to achieve. The talk in 1925 in CPGB circles was the need to ‘crystallise’ the Labour left in the direction of a mass Communist Party; and that the communist-influenced left should organise itself for defence against looming expulsions and disaffiliations. Hannah recognises this last point, but not the political reason behind it: that soft Labour left ‘stars’ such as George Lansbury were not going to help protect the communists inside the Labour Party. Hannah thus moulds the contours of the NLWM to its right, so that it can be inserted into his broader trajectory of ‘transformative’ Labour left projects. Neither the Sunday Worker, the mass-circulation paper established by the CPGB in March 1925, nor the NLWM were conceived of as ‘broad left’, as we might understand it today; and the actions of Vaughan and others who did display a degree of organic loyalty to the Labour Party were always suspicious to sections of the CPGB.
Further problems arise when Hannah discusses the end of the NLWM. His narrative simply reproduces the standard Trotskyist interpretation that the NLWM was closed down by the CPGB in 1929 because of Comintern’s third period, which saw it take a more hostile attitude to social democratic parties such as the Labour Party, in some cases dubbing them as ‘social-fascists’. This does not stand up to investigation. The NLWM had been defeated by the campaign of the Labour Party leadership in 1926-28 to disaffiliate its local bodies that refused to expel communists. This changed the NLWM from a body working to influence Labour members to one that attempted to sustain local parties external to the official Labour host. In any case, the NLWM was a shambolic organisation that was not a truly national one beyond London, Birmingham, Manchester and parts of south Wales. Also, the CPGB’s leadership and Comintern argued for the continuation of the NLWM before the CPGB’s 10th congress in January 1929. Far from the Sunday Worker “suddenly” declaring the closure of the NLWM, as Hannah suggests (p43), the CPGB’s congress voted down the leadership’s preference to keep the organisation going and the National Left Wing Committee followed suit in March.
Again, there is another sleight of hand in Hannah’s analysis that subtly shifts the NLWM to the political right. In discussing the third-period line that developed in the Comintern and the CPGB, he says: “The Labour left were considered even worse [than the Labour Party in general], since like a Pied Piper they lulled radical workers into the orbit of fascistic social democracy” (p43). Leaving aside the equation of social democrats with fascists (a lurid fantasy of the Comintern), this notion of the Labour left being Pied Pipers leading radical workers down blind alleys was common to all sections of the CPGB from at least 1925 (ie, long before the third period) after the soft Labour left failed to support its members fighting expulsion or disaffiliation. In some senses, Lansbury and company were even worse than the Labour right: effectively resigning the Labour Party to the departure of communists, while retaining the badge of ‘socialist’ and ‘left’.
Talking of Lansbury, who eventually became an ineffectual leader of the Labour Party in 1932, there has been a certain move among Alliance for Workers’ Liberty supporters to claim Lansbury as a positive icon for the left (mostly through Janine Booth, also notable as the second-worst poet in the AWL).
Unfortunately, Hannah also feeds into some of this mythology. He is an enthusiast for the local politics of ‘Poplarism’, where mayor Lansbury attempted to divert precepts for the Metropolitan Police and the London County Council into relief programmes for the poor. Such local activism is to the liking of the author, who sees it as an example of vague ‘transformative’ leftism, adding that “radical struggles like Lansbury’s” encouraged people “to flock to Labour” (p26).
This is a significant misreading. The CPGB’s Rajani Palme Dutt talked in 1925 of this localist phenomenon:
The leftwing forces [in the Labour Party], however strong separately and locally, have not yet been able to unite in a common bloc or on a common programme. The various groups, tendencies, movements … are all dispersed. They have no common programme, and not the most rudimentary form of common organisation. In consequence the right wing is able to maintain its power.
In other words, the conduct of these apparently ‘transformative’ struggles led to the demobilisation of the Labour left. Because Lansbury, along with other Labour left ‘stars’, refused to defend the CPGB and join the NLWM (Lansbury had previously informed the Greater London Left Wing in June 1926 that, “while he would continue to fight for socialism in the Labour Party, he would abide by ‘majority decisions’ on the question of communist expulsion”; in other words, he would not fight against it), this disorganised the left nationally and locally.
In 1928, Vaughan looked back on the struggle that Bethnal Green communist-Labour councillors had undertaken to preserve a commitment to a £4 minimum wage in the borough:
At the beginning of the struggle there were associated with us a number of other borough councils: Woolwich, Bermondsey, Shoreditch, Stepney, Poplar, etc. One by one, as the struggle became more fierce, they have deserted us, and now we find ourselves left alone in the struggle.
What Dutt had sketched out in 1925 had come to pass: an inability to unite on a national level had weakened the NLWM, isolated local struggles and reproduced the domination of the Labour right. Lansbury, who effectively made himself a prisoner of the Labour right in the 1920s (as chairman of the Labour Party he also presided over the disaffiliation of NLWM-supporting local Labour parties in Birmingham, reneging on earlier support for communists such as Dr Robert Dunstan), cannot seriously be judged as a ‘transformative’ character who upset existing power relations, when his actions are judged contextually against those of the NLWM and the campaign of disaffiliation waged by the right.
Hannah also inexplicably (since it has appeared in secondary literature, albeit in garbled forms) leaves out the major entry operation that the CPGB/Young Communist League carried out in the Labour League of Youth and the Labour Party from 1934, which ended up with the YCL controlling the LLOY.
The CPGB entered the Labour Party, under the direction of Comintern, in significant numbers (an average of 10% of the membership in the CPGB’s main areas) in a largely secretive operation to pull the Labour Party towards the politics of the popular front and, hence, into the orbit of the Soviet Union. Many of these cadres were unceremoniously yanked out of the Labour Party in 1939-40 and presented as new recruits to the CPGB, parroting various Stalinist dogmas. But, while such opposition was certainly subversive (at least as far as the Labour right was concerned), it also does not fit within Hannah’s abstract transformative/integrative schema. Indeed, it is difficult to see it as anything other than a conservative enterprise, given that it involved CPGB members clothing themselves in rhetoric sometimes to the right of traditional Labourism, which flipped over into a sectarian wrecking operation.
So, while I would assess that Hannah has made a useful contribution in trying to draw out some of the lessons of the Labour left’s history, its misunderstanding of the CPGB is a grievous flaw, particularly in the era of the 1920s and 1930s, when communists were active inside Labour. Hannah’s transformative/integrative schema needs to be overthrown, so that the various Labour left oppositions can be more concretely assessed in terms of their specific dynamics and in relation to their opponents of the time. Only then can we truly make judgements as to what is living in such history and what is dead.
However, this vague idea of ‘transformative’ leftism, which is, at root, an attempt to evade political principles in the cause of being able to bathe the miserable Keynesian platitudes of the Corbynistas in the light of the past simply leaves Hannah in a cul-de-sac of his own making.
Lawrence Parker is author of Communists and Labour - the National Left Wing Movement 1925-1929, available from lulu.com.