Shapurji Saklatvala speaking in Hyde Park - calling for release of those accused of the Reichstag fire in Germany

Cowboys and Indians

The AWL’s attempt to claim the legacy of Shapurji Saklatvala is poorly executed and theoretically incoherent, argues Lawrence Parker

A few weeks back, I posted a social-media comment on an article by Sacha Ismail of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, which introduced a set of writings about Labour-Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala (1874-1936). I suggested some of Ismail’s work was factually challenged and wondered why an introductory article to the series published in Solidarity did not mention the rather elementary fact that Saklatvala was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.1

As I did not think much of Ismail’s series on Saklatvala - seeing it as akin to a house extension built by cowboy builders (ie, superficially plausible, but on closer inspection it has an awful lot of cracks) - I would have probably moved on without further comment. However, it seems as if Ismail has taken on the role of public relations for his group, so I got the AWL ‘treatment’. This included social-media ‘friend’ requests; invitations to enter into a personal email dialogue with Ismail; and then - the jewel in the crown - a review by me that Sacha would personally pitch to the Solidarity editorial board. Tempting though all this was, I declined and suggested that Ismail should check out some of my past writing on related topics.

At this point, the penny dropped, and Ismail wrote: “I didn’t know you were a Weekly Worker supporter; if I had I would have been less keen to suggest a review. In any case, that settles that.” Oh dear. AWL members are not meant to give anyone associated with the CPGB or the Weekly Worker excuses for writing about the AWL and dear Sacha had not done his homework properly.2 Rather than engage further on social media, I had a bright idea that we might explore his musings on Saklatvala further in the pages of ... the Weekly Worker. As you can imagine, Sacha thought this was an absolutely fabulous idea (“Oh I can’t wait” were his exact words) and so here we are. The words ‘unintended consequences’ spring to mind.

But this is not a petty attempt to punish a gormless piece of public relations on the part of Ismail. While I do not think his articles on Saklatvala are of great significance for our knowledge of the CPGB, pursuing some of the interpretive issues around this inspiring communist does allow us to concretise some useful lessons and to point out some traps for the unwary.

I am focusing on the six-part series that Ismail recently wrote for Solidarity in 2020-21.3 I do not have access to the printed pamphlet that was made from the articles, although I am more than happy to engage further by way of this paper’s letters page if readers feel that the print version in some way ‘corrects’ or ‘improves’ the online articles in terms of the criticism that I set out below; or, indeed, on other points. I will limit this piece to a few major themes that illustrate Ismail’s main problems on this topic.


When Saklatvala died in January 1936, a number of notices appeared in subsequent issues of the CPGB magazine, Labour Monthly. These made some cursory references to the former MP’s Indian identity. Rajani Palme Dutt noted Saklatvala’s “country of birth”, before moving on to state:

Saklatvala represented an idea, which is only beginning to reach fruition - the idea of the union of the workers in imperialist countries with the exploited masses in the colonies as the indispensable condition of victory over imperialism.4

In a similar vein, CPGB MP William Gallacher, in an obituary on the first anniversary of Saklatvala’s death, placed little emphasis on a mere fact of Indian identity, instead stressing his comrade’s role in the essential unity of British and Indian struggles, stating Saklatvala’s “tremendous abilities would have made him an enormous asset to the socialist Britain and to the free India [that] he never lived to see”.5

This should not be read as CPGB members being blind to basic questions of identity. Palme Dutt was born to a Swedish mother and an Indian father. In his India today book (first appearing in 1940, with many subsequent editions), Dutt wrote an inscription to his father, Upendra Krishna Dutt, “who taught me the beginnings of political understanding - to love the Indian people and all peoples struggling for freedom”.6 In other words, Dutt expressed his Indian identity through a commitment to internationalism: identity was a process and not a fixed point of reference; a staging post and not a destination. (Dutt’s tragedy was the ultimate identification of that internationalism with the state interests of the Soviet Union.)

Neither were Dutt or Gallacher in any way eccentric on this point in terms of the CPGB’s politics. Any tendency to portray the organisation as a site of ‘ethnic mobilisation’ of one kind or another is extremely problematic, particularly in relation to the 1920s and early 1930s. As one study of the CPGB puts it,

… a strong current of internationalism offset particular allegiances, whether adopted or seemingly innate, while at the same time shaping the ways in which ethnic identities were themselves constructed, negotiated and contested.7

Arguably, in cases such as that of the Saklatvala remembrance above, those ethnic identities were sometimes made pretty marginal and superseded by a larger dialectic of this internationalism and the national needs of the Soviet Union. But in any case the early CPGB is clearly not an example of fixed ethnicities consistently interpolating and making themselves the surrogate for class-based internationalism and its distortions in the ‘official communist’ movement.

The party disproportionately represented groups of British society outside what one might identify as core ‘English’ or loyalist ‘British’8 and was in the 1920s stridently anti-imperialist, anti-monarchist, anti-militarist and anti-racist in a manner that was unusual for Britain at the time. The CPGB stood Shaukat Usmani - an Indian communist who had been made a prisoner as a result of the rigged Meerut conspiracy case - as a parliamentary candidate in 1929 and 1931. The party stood for the racial unity of workers during a National Union of Seaman dispute in 1930 and its members formed the Negro Welfare Association in Liverpool after attacks on the black community and mixed-race children. The CPGB also campaigned in the early 1930s against the death penalty and imprisonment of young African-Americans in Alabama: the so-called ‘Scottsboro Boys’.

Both the British state and other enemies, such as the British Union of Fascists, drew attention to black and Asian people attending CPGB events and demonstrations (the idea being that the CPGB were also ‘outsiders’ and that ‘normal’ British workers should have nothing to do with communism). This does not mean that the CPGB was perfect and Saklatvala himself complained of derogatory comments about negroes and Asians in 1934.9 Nevertheless, the ultimate truth of the matter is that the CPGB was among the most progressive anti-imperialist forces in 1920s and early 1930s Britain. Therefore, the party was not blind to racial issues; rather it was part of a broader universalist project.

‘Bame’ pioneer?

Ismail badges Saklatvala in an alternative way that is more in line with present-day liberal tendencies: “Labour’s first ‘Bame’ MP”.10 Now, that is a fact - but it is one that, as is clear from the above, the CPGB of the time was not bothered about.

Ismail does not ignore that Saklatvala was an internationalist and an anti-imperialist; those are things very commonly known about this important figure. Ismail also commends Saklatvala’s attempts at international solidarity and his work in the Indian independence struggle. But these expressions exist alongside AWL jargon that has been yanked in with some violence to Sak and the other historical actors he mentions:

[Saklatvala] was a remarkable figure in a galaxy of remarkable labour movement leaders and organisers … In the British context, he should be considered alongside his comrades, Minnie Lansbury and Charlotte Despard - also class-struggle socialists who organised at the intersections of multiple oppressions and identities.11

I do not think Saklatvala should be considered any such thing, partly because he would have had no conception of organising at the “intersections of multiple oppressions and identities” and this would have, rightly, been deemed a threat to the project of unity between British and Indian workers that the CPGB and Saklatvala were then undertaking. The AWL obviously thinks ‘intersectionalist’ jargon can simply be bolted on to what it perceives as ‘class struggle’ and the concurrent history of the workers’ movement, whereas the modern practice of ‘intersectionalist’ politics, where static identities prefigure and trump universalist projects, is the living negation of the early CPGB’s project.

All Ismail is doing by partly badging Saklatvala as a ‘Bame’ pioneer is preparing the ground for the history of the CPGB to be colonised by liberals, who, understandably, are less vexed at the thought of celebrating ‘Bame trailblazers’ (or the mild-mannered popular frontism that came to the fore after Saklatvala’s death) than having to examine closely the early politics of the CPGB. In some senses this has already happened. Palme Dutt is badged on the Open University’s database under the patriotic heading, ‘Discover how South Asians shaped the nation, 1870-1950’,12 with Saklatvala being put under the same moniker.13 Recently, an article in The Independent was headed ‘Shapurji Saklatvala, the Labour firebrand who fought for racial equality in the 1920s’.14

Bourgeois thought can live quite comfortably with the idea that Saklatvala and Dutt were ‘Bame’ pioneers - and the likes of Ismail seemingly never ask themselves why. Rather, they just adapt themselves to this sentiment, convinced that they have won an ‘anti-racist’ trick, when in fact they are merely sliding into a volcano.

However, let us turn this point around. Given that the CPGB had many faults in hindsight, could we not argue that the party should have “organised at the intersections of multiple oppressions and identities” in the modern jargon propounded by the AWL? In that case, it would be wise at least to have a cursory exploration of the manner in which this ‘intersectionalist’ ideology appeared in the workers’ movement, rather than just accepting it as neutral ‘good coin’ for our analytic frameworks. But this only leads on to more damaging contradictions for self-defined Trotskyists such as the AWL.

Mike Macnair argues:

Modern identity politics, and ‘intersectionality’ as an outgrowth of identity politics, begins in a sense with ‘official communism’ in the period of the ‘people’s front’ policy, which aimed to resist the threat of fascism by uniting with the ‘democratic’ wing of capital or party of liberty, on terms that the workers’ parties would not go beyond what was acceptable to the party of liberty.15

Macnair traces this back to the particular actions of the Communist Party of the USA:

The point is not that the CPUSA became for the first time left promoters of feminism and anti-racism in the popular front period. It is rather that, as Charlie Post indicates in his study of the CPUSA in this period, the popular front policy led them for the first time to treat ‘official’ women’s movement leaders, and ‘official’ black community leaders, as ‘legitimate representatives’ of group interests wholly separate from the class interests of the working class - and to begin to elaborate ‘class, gender and race’ as a trinity.16

Macnair concludes: “The logic of the policy was thus, precisely, to drive the issues of class, gender and race apart, rather than to pull them together.”17 Thus we have the origins of what we see today in the progressive movement, where the “intersections of multiple oppressions and identities” has displaced a universal project of human liberation and partly reduced serious political movements to gravel. This heritage of ‘official communism’ was given further embellishment by “the ‘western Maoist’ version of labour aristocracy theory, and its role in the processes of self-destruction of the ‘liberation movements’ through sectarianism in the 1970s”.18

This ‘people’s front’ policy of the Comintern had only just begun to fully emerge by the time of Saklatvala’s death, so this is another argument that ‘intersectionalism’ is a thoroughly external frame of reference for the actions of CPGB actors in the 1920s and early 1930s (ie, at the height of Saklatvala’s activity). But there is another much more obvious point: why are AWL members using a policy that had its origins in the Stalinist popular front to filter the history of the workers’ movement? If, for example, I used the Soviet purges to positively frame the CPGB in the late 1930s, then I presume, quite rightly, my many Trotskyist friends would ask me what the bloody hell I was up to (or words to that effect). The same question should be asked of AWL members, when they start emitting ideas that originated in the era of the popular front.

There is an obvious difference between a CPUSA member cosying up and placating black community leaders and a member of the Soviet NKVD shooting an Old Bolshevik in a Moscow cellar. But both share a similar ideological root in a desire to suffocate the international proletarian revolution. In all probability though, Ismail is unaware of the specific political antecedents of ‘intersectionalism’; rather it is just a straightforward adaption to modern liberal opinion.

‘Unusual Stalinist’?

Ismail does not hide the fact that Saklatvala was a supporter of Stalin and an enthusiast for the Soviet Union. This is not an easy sell for an AWL that is decidedly phobic about ‘official communism’. For example, the AWL attempted to label the producers of this paper as ‘tankies’ in 2007-08, when it was seeking to deflect attention from its ‘anti-anti-imperialist’ politics in relation to the Middle East. (Indeed, the AWL was so inept in this that ‘tankies’ has now largely dropped away as a term of abuse applied to the CPGB-PCC.) This label was predicated on the fact that the founding members of the CPGB-PCC had been in the old ‘official’ CPGB and its progeny.

So this is an arena in which Ismail has to exercise some care. The intelligent thing to do is to pose the actual ‘unity of opposites’ present in the CPGB: its most militant, class-conscious sections allied this characteristic with a strong political affinity with the Soviet Union. This became even more marked from 1945 onwards, when the CPGB’s left oppositions were generally either pro-Soviet or pro-Maoist. Instead, Ismail takes the more factually dubious path of acknowledging Saklatvala’s Stalinism alongside a bit of the old ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ to suggest that his hero might have covertly been on the side of the angels after all:

Saklatvala was always going to be a somewhat unusual Stalinist. Challenged in parliament about ‘socialism in one country’ during a speech about internationalism in 1928, he sought not so much to defend Stalin’s nationalistic policy as to redefine it out of existence. But in general he accepted and carried out the twists and turns of the Stalinist line.19

Ismail adds:

[Saklatvala] died before high Stalinism took shape, with the Moscow trials. Sehri [Saklatvala] told later biographer Marc Wadsworth she thought her father would have opposed fully consolidated Stalinism in 1956 (the Hungarian Revolution) and 1968 (the Prague Spring).20

This is extremely muddled on a number of levels. First, there is a shifting notion of Stalinism: “high Stalinism”, which appears to be something to do with the purges; and then “fully consolidated” Stalinism, which appears to be temporally limited to the 1950s and 1960s. I am not sure what this is meant to signify other than the author merely bandying phrases around. It might mean that Saklatvala’s activity after Stalin’s rise to power in the mid-1920s is a more palatable period of Stalinism, but then that would be a strange thing for a Trotskyist to argue, given what happened in the Comintern in those years. Ismail’s lack of conceptual precision is striking.

Similarly, it is a bit of understandable wishful thinking on the part of Saklatvala’s daughter that her father would not have supported the Soviet military actions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I do not think we can make any such assumption, given that many of Saklatvala’s comrades from the 1920s supported both actions, Dutt being the most prominent example. Other than as a device to make Saklatvala’s obvious support for the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy slightly more palatable to an AWL audience, it is a hard job to work out why such conjecture has been included.

I also think it is factually misleading to suggest that Saklatvala “sought not so much to defend Stalin’s nationalistic policy [of socialism in one country] as to redefine it out of existence” in 1928. On March 21 of that year, Saklatvala was involved in a parliamentary debate on ‘The perils of socialism’. In this debate, the ILP MP James Maxton pointed out to him that Stalin, “when dealing with the present administration of Russia, said that a socialist state can maintain itself in the midst of a capitalist world”.21 Saklatvala made this point of clarification:

Stalin’s argument is that, deplorable as the industrial development of Russia is at the present time, the needs and requirements of the people of Russia make them dependent upon other countries for manufactured articles [that] cannot be supplied in Russia, and, owing to the backwardness and the apathy of the working classes, other countries that have not yet developed as far as a socialist revolution. The teachings of Zinoviev and Trotsky try to prove the necessity of attacking Poland and Germany in order to incorporate the neighbouring countries in the Soviet Republic.

There is still a sufficient modicum of industrial activity left within the Soviet Republic [that] could be built upon by some form of compromise with the capitalist countries and machinery could be adopted to keep up the socialist struggle until socialism is properly understood as something that can be introduced only through a socialist revolution, and no humbug.22

This is not a case of Saklatvala redefining ‘socialism in one country’ out of existence: rather he is refuting Zinoviev and Trotsky and ideas of ‘world revolution’, albeit by way of caricaturing them as advocates of military conquest. The rest of the quote is a garbled rendering of the Stalin of Foundations of Leninism (1924): the Soviet Union uses compromise with capitalist countries to build socialism internal to its borders until workers elsewhere overcome their apathy to revolution and then the complete victory of socialism is possible. Stalin structures the argument in a more precise manner:

… the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie and establishment of the power of the proletariat in one country does not yet mean that the complete victory of socialism has been ensured. After consolidating its power and leading the peasantry in its wake, the proletariat of the victorious country can and must build a socialist society. But does this mean that it will thereby achieve the complete and final victory of socialism: ie, does it mean that with the forces of only one country it can finally consolidate socialism and fully guarantee that country against intervention and, consequently, also against restoration? No, it does not. For this the victory of the revolution in at least several countries is needed.23

From what little evidence Ismail provides, I can see no real proof that Saklatvala was a “somewhat unusual Stalinist”, however unpalatable to the AWL that might be.

Scylla and Charybdis

Other garbled parts of Ismail’s narrative are focused around the CPGB’s work in the Labour Party. This is less directly about Saklatvala than the context in which he worked as a CPGB member as an officially endorsed parliamentary candidate of the Labour Party in Battersea North in 1922.

When discussing these events, Trotskyists generally have to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of two equally reductive interpretations. Expressed very generally, those writers and groups influenced by Tony Cliff will express a preference for the anti-Labour Party workplace activism of the ex-Socialist Labour Party component of the early CPGB and thus be relatively disapproving of the ex-British Socialist Party contingent that was already in the Labour Party at the time of the CPGB’s foundation. Those writers influenced by Ted Grant and Militant would be more amenable to the BSP’s place inside the Labour Party, but suggest that the CPGB had a sectarian taint because it was a party separate from Labour structures and framed its early affiliation proposals to Labour in an overly combative manner.

This division maps itself instrumentally onto two politically brittle ‘thou shall not’ perspectives: Cliff’s offspring have always been sectarian towards important internal political battles in the Labour Party; while Ted Grant’s children have, at various points, seemingly taken a solemn vow to never depart from Labour’s ranks. This is a very brief thumbnail sketch of these ‘alternatives’ (and some of the children in these families ignore their Trot dad’s advice - teenagers, huh?) but it is amazing how well they map onto many Trotskyists’ perceptions of the early CPGB.

This is what Ismail says of the CPGB’s attempt to affiliate to the Labour Party in 1921:

The British Socialist Party, the largest of the organisations [that] merged to form the CP, had been affiliated [to the Labour Party] since 1916. The CP could simply have informed the Labour Party that the BSP had changed its name. Instead, concerned to raise a clear, visible banner for communism, the CP leaders emphasised their party’s separateness and applied for affiliation performatively. They wrote the national executive committee a letter about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and their right to control future communist MPs. Communist leader JT Murphy made a speech about taking Labour “by the hand, the better to take them by the throat tomorrow”.

The Labour leaders were able to get away with refusing affiliation, and every Labour conference from 1921 to 1925 rejected affiliation by a large majority. At the 1923 conference Saklatvala - an MP for seven months - spoke in favour of affiliation as a delegate from St Pancras Labour Party and Trades Council, but to no avail.24

In Ismail’s eyes, the CPGB “applied for affiliation performatively”: ie, it was more concerned with ideological grandstanding for communism than securing the affiliation. This meant that “Labour leaders were able to get away with refusing affiliation”. The BSP should just have announced a simple name change to the Labour leadership. Affiliation secured and job done.

There are a few points to be made about this hopeless analysis. First, it reflects the historical development of the AWL from Militant’s ‘thou shalt honour and respect the Labour Party’ standpoint: the early CPGB is deemed to have a sectarian taint that thus made it easier for the Labour leadership to refuse affiliation. Does Ismail really believe that a simple announcement from the BSP that it was changing its name to ‘CPGB’ and that affiliation on those lines would have worked? That the Labour leadership would have said ‘that’s OK’ and would not have been analysing the formation of the CPGB and its BSP component very closely? This is laughable. Announcing this ‘name change of affiliate’ would have led to bitter accusations of subterfuge against the CPGB.

Ismail also seems to have a problem with the CPGB emphasising its “separateness” from the Labour Party and strongly implies that it should have made its communism more discrete. There is a palpable gulf here between Trotskyists like Ismail and Lenin. Lenin foresaw that the CPGB joining the Labour Party and insisting on freedom of criticism (ie, its separateness) in proposing affiliation would lead to severe bumps in the road in the CPGB’s relations with the Labour bureaucracy: “In a private talk, comrade [Sylvia] Pankhurst said to me: ‘If we are real revolutionaries and join the Labour Party, these gentlemen will expel us.’ But that would not be bad at all.”25 Lenin added: “Let the Thomases and other social-traitors, whom you have called by that name, expel you. That will have an excellent effect upon the mass of the British workers.”26

But Lenin also said that in the circumstances of the CPGB insisting on its separateness “it would be highly erroneous for the best revolutionary elements not to do everything possible to remain in such a party”.27 And that is exactly what happened: there was no walk-out of CPGB members from the Labour Party after the former’s formal affiliation was rejected and, as Ismail recognises, communists remained a significant factor within Labour, which is the background to figures such as Saklatvala developing a strong local following in areas such as Battersea.

By singling out the CPGB’s ‘separateness’ as a political problem, Ismail simply reflects the deformation that began in the early Comintern in the form of the ‘21 conditions’, whereby the ability to form factions in its parties was denied. A push to manufacture unity inside organisations such as the CPGB spread into its external practice, producing pressure to constantly manufacture unity with opportunists in the labour movement. AWL cadre such as Ismail have seemingly never reflected on this, because to do so would mean reflecting negatively on the practice of the AWL, which is unable to countenance true freedom of criticism internally and has a regrettable history of opportunist stunts in the external labour movement. In both instances, ‘separateness’ is a problem.

I have focused here on the few passages in Ismail’s articles on Saklatvala where he moves beyond empiricism. Large chunks of the text are taken up with a potted history of Saklatvala’s life and activity and, as such, are fairly unremarkable jottings, mostly culled from secondary literature. When Ismail reaches beyond this, to try and provide some conceptual organisation and analysis of his subject’s life, he begins to flounder in deeper waters.

In that sense, this reminds me of the Communist Party of Britain’s writings on the history of the CPGB; whenever it gropes beyond humdrum empiricism into more analytical territory, things begin to fall apart. In the CPB’s case this is due to a vast accumulation of inherited dogmas and it is much the same with the AWL. To write about the CPGB and figures such as Saklatvala, the AWL has to negotiate the rapids of Trotskyism, which offers only reductive frameworks with which to interpret the early CPGB. It also has to negotiate the particular sect dogmas of the AWL and now the uncritical interpolation of ‘intersectionalist’ ideas culled from the decline of ‘official’ communism in the 1930s.

That is a shit intellectual inheritance by anyone’s standards, and I have some passing pity for people having to construct useable and coherent histories from such dire schemas. However, one suspects that the AWL and its ghastly PR operators are beyond redemption on this score.

  1. workersliberty.org/story/2021-03-02/why-we-wrote-about-saklatvala.↩︎

  2. See ‘Failing the litmus test of loyalty’ (Weekly Worker November 7 2013) for more on the AWL’s defensive avoidance strategy towards the Weekly Worker.↩︎

  3. The articles can be found here: workersliberty.org/story/2020-09-22/shapurji-saklatvala-series-articles.↩︎

  4. RP Dutt, ‘Notes of the month’ Labour Monthly February 1936.↩︎

  5. W Gallacher, ‘Shapurji Saklatvala 1874-1936’ Labour Monthly January 1937.↩︎

  6. Front-piece to RP Dutt India today Calcutta 1979.↩︎

  7. K Morgan, G Cohen, A Flinn Communists and British society London 2007 p186.↩︎

  8. Ibid p185.↩︎

  9. Ibid pp216-17.↩︎

  10. workersliberty.org/story/2020-08-26/shapurji-saklatvala-labours-first-bame-mp.↩︎

  11. workersliberty.org/story/2020-12-15/shapurji-saklatvala-revolutionary-trailblazer.↩︎

  12. open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/rajani-palme-dutt.↩︎

  13. open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/shapurji-saklatvala.↩︎

  14. independent.co.uk/independentpremium/long-reads/racism-black-mps-parliament-shapurji-saklatvala-b1782446.html.↩︎

  15. M Macnair, ‘Intersectionalism, the highest stage of western Stalinism? Critique 2018, p550.↩︎

  16. Ibid p551.↩︎

  17. Ibid p552.↩︎

  18. M Macnair, ‘Intersectionalism is a dead end’ Weekly Worker June 7 2018.↩︎

  19. workersliberty.org/story/2020-12-15/shapurji-saklatvala-revolutionary-trailblazer.↩︎

  20. Ibid.↩︎

  21. hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1928-03-21/debates/e3b4b79f-45f7-4ec8-9458-d7b79d30e7f4/PerilsOfSocialism.↩︎

  22. Ibid.↩︎

  23. marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1924/foundations-leninism/ch03.htm.↩︎

  24. workersliberty.org/story/2020-09-02/battersea-versus-british-empire.↩︎

  25. marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch13.htm.↩︎

  26. Ibid.↩︎

  27. Ibid.↩︎