The National Left-Wing Movement: a lost legacy of the 1920s
Lawrence Parker spoke about his book ‘Communists and Labour - The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929’ at Communist University 2018. This is an edited version of his talk
The National Left-Wing Movement was a vehicle through which the Communist Party organised its work inside the Labour Party from the mid-to-late 1920s. It was set up in late 1925 in London, had its own programme and was an aspiring national body from about 1926.
The NLWM was established for two reasons: to organise against the right’s closure of branches that supported communists; and, very specifically, to draw the Labour left towards the CPGB. The Labour Party was not treated as the end of a process - at least in the early theorisation of this tactic. The end of the process was to be a mass Communist Party.
There are three main myths about the National Left-Wing Movement.
The first is that it was set up as a broad-left movement: a front, where Marxists join and voluntarily expunge their Marxist politics. Despite what you may read in some academic and leftwing accounts, the NLWM was not set up as this type of organisation. Neither was the Sunday Worker organised as a broad-left paper. Rather it was a communist paper with the goal of engaging the wider movement.
The NLWM was the product of Bolshevisation and the Comintern’s dissatisfaction with what the CPGB had done within the Labour Party up to that point. It did not have so-called Labour left ‘stars’, such as George Lansbury and James Maxton, involved in it. Miners’ leader AJ Cook was associated with the the NLWM but never joined. However, and this is the point, the NLWM did not pander to the wider Labour left’s leadership. Indeed, the CPGB split with such forces in 1925, when Lansbury, Maxton and the ‘red Clydesiders’ refused to stand alongside communists when they were being expelled from the Labour Party.
The second myth features in the work of Trotskyist historian Brian Pearce: in some ways his work was very good, but I have some criticisms. He suggests that there was widespread support for the NLWM across the Labour Party. This is partly true. Pearce quotes statistics, showing that, for example, a certain number of constituency Labour parties indicated support for the NLWM - in fact, the CPGB and the NLWM constantly whinged about the reality of disorganisation, in spite of what figures they could put down on paper. It was reported at the 1929 CPGB congress that the NLWM never had a proper functioning office - only a room in the Sunday Worker premises. The NLWM never had a full-time CPGB comrade working on the project and it failed to develop on a national basis.
Initial NLWM secretary WT Colyer was forced to resign at the end of 1926. One reason was because the NLWM was not a national movement beyond London, Birmingham, Manchester, south Wales and (partially) Edinburgh. There were a lot of initial meetings elsewhere, but nothing seems to have properly developed in the provinces. I call the NLWM a “unique shambles” - it is clear that the CPGB thought it was a shambles. If this was ‘Bolshevisation’, it was very bad example.
The third myth appears in both academic and Trotskyist literature. The story runs that the NLWM ended in 1929 because of Third Period politics and because the CPGB thought the Labour Party was composed of social fascists. But that conflates later developments inside the CPGB with what actually happened in 1928 and 1929.
If you look at the documents, they show that in early 1929 both the Comintern and the CPGB central committee wanted the NLWM to continue. They wanted it to return to its original prospectus of building the CPGB - both those bodies wanted the NLWM to continue to promote the CPGB in the Labour Party.
Unfortunately, most of the communists by that point had been expelled or else they had to keep their heads down inside Labour. So who would have carried out this work? Most of the communist sympathisers were also expelled or disaffiliated. So what the Comintern and CPGB actually wanted the NLWM for is a moot question. What eventually happened was a rebellion against such recommendations at the CPGB congress of January 1929, which voted to close down the NLWM against the recommendation of the CPGB CC and Comintern.
You can see in the CPGB archives that it was Ralph Bond, secretary of the NLWM at that time, who dug its grave. To paraphrase him at the congress,‘The NLWM is finished because we have lost the battle against disaffiliation. We have lost the battle against expulsion. We haven’t built a mass Communist Party. The CPGB has never organised or funded the NLWM properly.’ All the speakers from the NLWM backed Bond on this.
The drift to the left had influenced the delegates who had voted against the NLWM, but it is a myth that it was closed down because of Third Period politics. The NLWM was closed down because the Labour right defeated it through expulsions and disaffiliations. By 1929, it was an organisation of dysfunctional, disaffiliated components. It had lost its original purpose to fight against expulsions and disaffiliations.
The NLWM was also defeated by the fact that the Labour left as a whole had not become involved in it. Early on, it had a broader group of people who did not want communists expelled and were prepared to stand alongside them. The CPGB mapped out how this relationship changed, as the NLWM developed. By the end, the CPGB realised that most of those in the NLWM were people who shared political sympathies with the CPGB. Disaffiliation and expulsion had gone as an issue and these were people who agreed with the CPGB on major political points. So the support base had narrowed. I do not think left sectarianism defeated the NLWM on its own, although the arguments of leftists such as JT Murphy and R Palme Dutt certainly helped to undermine it.
Working out the relationship of history to our current practice breeds idealist assumptions. This is what I think Simon Hannah has produced in his recent book on the Labour left.1 He talks about a history that is being lived in relation to a future that is not yet determined. I have problems with that statement and that way of theorising it. It is idealist and lacks any concrete sense of historical mediation. He assumes that history is always lived in the present. Sometimes that is true and sometimes it is not.
To make this work in his book he has two broad Labour Party types: transformative left types committed to shaking things up; and integrationists, who want more to maintain the status quo. But what does ‘transformative’ really mean? Such broadness allows Hannah to group together Corbynistas and the communist-influenced left of the 1920s. They all come under his broad-left rubric of ‘transformative’. You cannot say they are all revolutionary, but you can certainly say they are all transformative in some way. But then you can imply all sorts of things are transformative that actually are not.
With that method, Hannah groups together those who want to reform capitalism and revolutionaries who want to overthrow it. That is problematic. It is also a consolatory sop. Linking Momentum and Corbyn to things that happened in the 1920s Labour Party in such a vague way allows Hannah to give Corbyn’s project a radical gloss - a radicalism that is not actually present. Hannah recognises this himself when he says that Corbyn and the Corbynista movement can only be judged as variants of mild leftwing Keynesianism. But his method does not actually allow for that difference to be elaborated.
This attempt to make history work in a utilitarian way is rooted in an older far-left culture. We have all seen those left historical reviews where in the last few paragraphs they try to square the circle with reality as it is now. A bit of history and then ‘this shows the need for a revolutionary party in today’s struggle ...’
Another way in which leftwingers use history is in Ken Loach’s Land and freedom, for example - a very good film about the Spanish revolution of the 1930s. At the end the young girl burying her grandfather takes his red neckerchief and raises her fist with all the other comrades. To me this is a pat ending because it said, in an emotional and superficial way, ‘The struggle goes on’. I am not saying I am unmoved by that kind of thing. But far more interesting, if you want to look at a gripping ending in relation to the Spanish revolution, is John Dos Passos’ book Adventures of a young man. Here, a ‘Trotskyite’ (the hero is actually a critic of US Stalinism) is sent on a murderous suicide mission to the front line and shot dead. That is how it ends: with the exact moment of death. He has been sent to his death by the Stalinists. Such endings provoke questions and thought rather than a warm, fuzzy glow.
So the way the left uses history in either a consolatory or utilitarian manner is problematic. But the very worst - the worm-eaten cherry on the mouldy cake - is what you get, for example, in Tony Cliff’s appalling writings on the Labour Party and the CPGB in the 1920s. All he is interested in is constructing a rhetorical case against Militant as it was in the 1980s. All the historical actors in Cliff’s works get ‘lacerated by his scissors and drowned in his paste’. He cuts up the historical narrative so that the CPGB and NLWM are unrecognisable. It is completely lacking in authenticity.
What are the alternatives to these kinds of histories? Much better is the outline given by Georg Lukács when in 1967 he was looking back to his 1924 book Lenin. He said:
A fruitful contribution to the renaissance of Marxism requires a purely historical treatment of the 1920s - a past period of the revolutionary working class movement [that] is now entirely closed. This is the only way to make its experience and lessons properly relevant to the essentially new phase of the present.2
In other words, before you can treat past groups such as the NLWM as having any kind of use-value in today’s world, you have to work out what is dead and what is still alive in it. This is a far more dialectical and correct way of approaching these questions.
There are some limited factors from the time of the NLWM that are still present now. But I have to say, from my reading of it, they are mostly negative ones. It follows that I would be highly suspicious if my work were to be used as a kind of training manual or a direct guide to action now.
We cannot transpose from the NLWM into the present what has died and no longer exists. The CPGB was an advanced minority of the working class. It grouped together a serious group of militants that had deep roots in the class struggle. We can make many criticisms of the CPGB from when it was founded - let alone after it was Stalinised in the late 1920s. The CPGB was a small, minoritarian organisation in the working class. But it was able to exert a gravitational pull on the Labour Party and its activists. Not least because one of its founding components was the British Socialist Party.
Many of the BSP’s members were involved in the Labour Party and exerting their own pull, prior to the CPGB. When that group of people got organised within Labour as part of the CPGB they took serious local activists with them - such as the mayor of Bethnal Green, Joe Vaughan, and hosts of other activists who were well regarded figures.
So the NLWM does not represent the CPGB entering the Labour Party, as we might understand it today. It was more about shoring up the position of the CPGB inside Labour and defending those Marxists who had been an organic part of it. It is clear we completely lack that kind of organisation in the current situation in the class struggle. There is no equivalent of the CPGB as it was - a major missing actor for a modern version of the NLWM.
Yet the CPGB in the 1920s constantly struggled to control its comrades in the NLWM. There was a constant veering off to the right, which then produced a leftwing reaction inside the Communist Party against such ‘rightism’. A lot of communists involved in the NLWM might be called right opportunists of some description: there was a constant tendency to veer to the right and close ranks with Labourites.
If the CPGB had those problems in the 1920s (and think about how much more advanced an organisation it was), then imagine what difficulties the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party would have today. If the SWP and SP did join Labour in the future, I predict they would end up as Corbynistas - and the worst kind at that. They would clamp down on the left, as they generally do in broader organisations. They would dissolve like an aspirin. Remember the SWP inventing a phantom right wing in the old Socialist Alliance? Their comrades went out of their way to defer to the social-democratic bilge of a ragbag conglomeration of ‘independents’, rather than accepting that the alliance was essentially composed of the revolutionary left. It is clear that the lack of a CPGB - of a kind that existed in the 1920s - is a critical missing element for these kinds of struggles.
The second thing that has ‘died’ is that communists were open members of the Labour Party in the 1920s. Everyone knew who they were because they had been in Labour in a period when it allowed dual membership.
There was a phenomenon of communist-Labour activists; members who held the cards of both parties, including councillors and MPs such as Shapurji Saklatvala. They usually relied on a local Labour Party or CLP as a base for their operations. But they were openly communist. They could not hide and there was no reason for them to hide.
In the 1920s the Labour Party as a whole was in a process of change. The party leadership was looking at the organisation as a vehicle for government. As a result, it was also becoming a body for those with personal aspirations. People who wanted power, both locally and in parliament. In that mix, when anti-Bolshevism was virulent, the critiques and actions of communists were not going to be tolerated. In 1924, the Labour Party changed its rules to exclude communists and then ratified the decision in 1925. The period of dual membership came to an end.
But, even when the campaign of expulsions started, the CPGB still stood openly on communist politics. It produced a really interesting pamphlet at the time: The reds and the Labour Party (1926). It was a riposte to those Labour Party members who said that the CPGB and communist members in Labour were a secret conspiracy organised by Moscow.
The argument was that the Labour left, and some of the Labour right, were all things to all people. They would talk one way in a CLP meeting, but then go to conference and vote in a completely different way. The CPGB said, if Labour activists voted for a communist, they would get Communist Party politics: communists could be held to account because they argued their politics openly as communists and were known as communists. Communist-Labour activists could be judged against the CPGB’s line, as openly expressed in the Labour Party.
Unfortunately this caused tensions inside the CPGB. Some members wanted to keep their heads down as a result of the witch-hunt, although, in the end, the CPGB still wanted to be an open organisation inside the Labour Party. But there is evidence in the London area that communists would talk a different way within Labour than in the CPGB. So how then could rank-and-file Labour activists really hold such people to account, when they mirrored the practice of the right and ‘soft left’ by arguing different politics in different fora?
The 1920s were the last time that an effective and open Marxist current existed inside the Labour Party; this came to an end because of the bans and proscriptions introduced by the right from 1924 onwards.
The CPGB next started to work in the Labour Party in 1934 under instruction from the Comintern - this time in a very secretive and conspiratorial way. It made the political decision to downgrade its own programme and clothe their cadre as Labourites. But you could usually tell who the CPGB members were - they were the ones talking about the Soviet Union in an optimistic manner, defending show trials and promoting the politics of the popular front.
After the NLWM, the era of the open penetration of the Labour Party was largely ended and that is still true today. You cannot openly talk about your affiliations. You cannot openly be a member of another political party. It is even dubious if you voiced support in the past for something as harmless as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The era of the NLWM, based on open communist politics, is dead. The Labour Party is now a different kind of beast to work in.Yes, there are caveats - there are all sorts of things you can do inside the party. But dual membership, open Marxist work - these are alien ideas to much of the reformist and revolutionary left.
What is also now dead is a Labour Party rank and file familiar with Marxist politics and notions of class struggle. Anyone active in the Labour Party today will tell you that Marxists inside the Labour Party are largely uncomprehended. It is as though they are talking a completely different language. Issues such as the oppression of Palestine are used as a kind of shorthand to explain factional line-ups. It boils down to whether you support Palestine or whether you support Israel, while whether you are a pro-socialist or pro-capitalist is less of an issue. I am not saying that the question of Israel-Palestine is unimportant and you cannot crystallise certain politics. But the broader, Marxist understanding of national oppression and imperialism is missing.
This was not the case in the 1920s. After the NLWM had been wound up in March 1929, there was a long debate in the pages of the Sunday Worker, which lasted until August. Most of the letters published complained about the closure of the NLWM - many were from activists who had worked alongside the CPGB, but were not CPGB members. These were non-CPGB Marxists, who had seen the NLWM as their own party. They were opposed to accepting the lead of Ramsay MacDonald, but they were also opposed to joining the CPGB. This demonstrates how the left of the CPGB was right in its criticism of the NLWM: it had become a third party and a blockage to building the CPGB. Some might also have been promoting that viewpoint for sectarian reasons of their own - they may have wanted to cosy up to Moscow. But they were right to say it, because it was true.
As for the non-CPGB comrades, many used the language of Marxism and the class struggle. A lot of the Labour left had been in the CPGB at one time or another, but saw it as an unsuitable vehicle. There are very many cases of this.
You can see this at the 1928 conference of the NLWM, when there was a debate on the desirability of the CPGB’s new slogan for a revolutionary workers’ government. While the CPGB was not advocating a new Labour government, it still wanted to remain inside Labour to pull its rank and file over to the politics of the CPGB. However, ‘For a revolutionary workers’ government’ was an empty slogan, because it was totally unclear who was going to be in such a government at that time. In addition, the 1924 government had not exhausted working class illusions in Labourism: support for Labour was growing in the mid-1920s.
At that 1928 conference of the NLWM a whole section of its activists argued against the CPGB. They said that Lenin’s earlier idea of putting the Labour government into power still held good, as those working class illusions had not been exhausted. If the working class put a Labour government into office, subsequently the mass ranks of disillusioned people would be attracted to the NLWM. It is instructive that both sides drew upon a shared language of ‘Leninism’ - this was the sea in which the CPGB swam.
If you go to a Labour Party conference today you will not find that kind of advanced understanding. Instead you will find a vague conglomeration of single-issue campaigns, combined with the glorification of Corbyn. When I say that, I am not deriding the Corbynista movement: I am trying to draw out some of the contradictions and weaknesses of the situation.
The old crap
There is a lot that has died and that is not particularly relevant to the current situation. So has anything lived on? Well, yes, but I have to say these factors are mostly negative. A large part of the old crap that surrounded the NLWM still surrounds us now. It has lived on, but in new forms.
For example, when the January 1929 congress of the CPGB debated the closure of the NLWM, R Palme Dutt argued that its programme was centrist and redundant. He and Welsh communist Idris Cox argued that the CPGB needed to root itself in what Cox called the “immediate demands” of the party: that is, various economistic struggles. Cox claimed that these were popular among workers and the NLWM programme was unpopular. This was Third Period politics - Cox was supposedly a leftist and a protagonist of such politics. So the shift to the left in the Third Period was actually underpinned by rightist assumptions.
In fact, the NLWM had had a programme that proposed specific democratic demands. Abolition of the monarchy, abolition of the House of Lords, the rights of soldiers, of sailors. It was a very specific political programme. But the CPGB then saw it as old hat.
There is an exquisite irony in that situation. Although the NLWM had never developed beyond a shambles, its programme had begun to gain ground amongst the Labour left. When Arthur Cook and James Maxton proposed the so-called Cook-Maxton manifesto in 1928, the programmatic demands that they adopted were those of the NLWM. Their document Socialism in our time (1928) is particularly recommended for debunking the idea that nationalisation equals socialism. It was a republican document that argued for the abolition of the House of Lords and monarchy in a detailed and passionate way.
So the programme of the NLWM had actually gained ground amongst the left. But it was an empty victory, because Cook and Maxton did not join the NLWM. Communists had won the programmatic debate among sections of the Labour left - but this was the point at which the CPGB jumped away.
The arguments of Cox and the rest of the left at the 1929 CPGB congress were very much like the verbiage of today’s SWP, SP and Communist Party of Britain. These organisations see Corbyn as a broadly positive phenomenon - but they try and capsize Labour by advocating economistic struggles. Somehow, this is supposed to transform the situation inside the Labour Party, but it is only repeating the leftist-economist crap that the CPGB produced as an argument against the NLWM at the 1929 congress.
The main thing that has lived on in a very dramatic form today can be seen in the shoddy actions of the soft left inside the Labour Party. A similar soft Labour left made itself a prisoner of the right in the 1920s and declined to become involved in the NLWM. It included figures such as Christian socialist George Lansbury, who led the Poplar rates revolt, plus the so-called ‘red Clydesiders’ around Maxton and other MPs. Maxton and Lansbury had both been involved with CPGB-inspired campaigns in the 1920s - Maxton was part of a CPGB front called the League Against Imperialism, while Lansbury was even awarded a medal for his work in a Comintern formation called International Class War Prisoners’ Aid.
But I strongly object to the sanctified manner in which Lansbury in particular is treated by modern-day left groups, such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. It likes him because he led the Poplar rates revolt - he was a ‘man of action’. But this leaves out the other side of the story. Lansbury refused to take a stand against the CPGB’s removal from the Labour Party and the disaffiliations (although he said he did not like it). He always said he wanted to ‘abide by Labour Party rules’, which, by 1925, was code for expelling the communists.
As chairman of the Labour Party in 1928, Lansbury presided over a few dirty deeds. He told all the disaffiliated parties that he would like to have them back inside the Labour Party - provided the communists were excluded. When the Labour right removed the famous Birmingham communist, Dr Robert Dunstan, Lansbury initially said he supported Dunstan as an outstanding candidate, but soon reneged on that.
Lansbury, as Labour Party chairman, also presided over the break-up of the Birmingham Left Wing in 1928. The Birmingham Left Wing had been formed early in 1924 and had deep-rooted support across the city and lots of affiliated organisations, including the Birmingham ILP under Joseph Southall. So Lansbury oversaw the attack on those recalcitrant branches who kept selecting communists as their representatives and candidates.
In other words, there needs to be a recalibration of what we think about Lansbury: he is not the hero some suppose. He may have done some good things, but he was also responsible for some appalling acts, mainly directed against the CPGB.
Another episode in 1928 has some parallels today. Maxton spoke at a meeting of the League Against Imperialism in London against Clement Attlee, who had served on one of the Indian commissions, and both Maxton and communists speaking from the platform attacked Attlee for that - this was all openly reported in the ILP’s New Leader. But Maxton was severely reprimanded by the ILP. He was also reprimanded by Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour right for organising the Cook-Maxton campaign I mentioned earlier and in the end Maxton chose peace and ‘unity’ with the ILP and with MacDonald over his principles.
The issue that lay behind these polemics against Maxton from his own supporters in the ILP was the communist company he kept. That has parallels with today. The pressures that existed on the soft left in the Cook-Maxton campaign made it the dampest of damp squibs. It completely petered out. The soft Labour left constantly backtracked to appease the Labour right all through the 1920s. Those forces and pressures continue today.
I am aware this is a pessimistic conclusion: a lot of the old crap that surrounded the NLWM exists in today’s environment in ever more squalid and politically primitive forms. Not very many of the positive things the NLWM was able to do in the 1920s are now possible. What remains today is the soft, appeasing Labour left, while the Labour right remains intent on rampaging its way through the party. They were the things that helped destroy the NLWM and they are far more visible in today’s environment than the politics that inspired the NLWM.
However, amongst the most depressing of situations and dark backdrops there are often glimmers of hope, like sunlight on a winter’s day. But very few of those optimistic gleams are apparent today.
1. S Hannah A party with socialists in it: a history of the Labour left London 2018.
2. G Lukács Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought London 1970, p89.
Lawrence Parker’s book, Communists and Labour - The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929, is available here.