Tribune of the people

Revolutionary candidates: Saklatvala

Shapurji Saklatvala came to Britain from India in 1905 at the age of 31. Although from a bourgeois family, he soon embraced socialist ideas. By 1907 he had joined the Social Democratic Federation (later to become the British Socialist Party), but his main activity in this period was in the Independent Labour Party, which he joined in 1909. There were no bans on dual membership, and in fact both groups were affiliated to the Labour Party.

After the Russian Revolution he became a firm supporter of the Third International, campaigning tirelessly for ILP affiliation. He welcomed the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, but did not join immediately, attempting instead to win the ILP as a whole to enter the CPGB and the International. Only when this appeared impossible did he resign from the ILP and join the CPGB. In our view he should have continued the fight within the ILP, where he carried great respect, even after joining the CPGB.

At about the same time, in June 1921, he was adopted as Labour Party parliamentary candidate for the Battersea North constituency in London, where he was well known as an ILP activist. Unlike the Socialist Labour Party today, there were at that time no rules excluding CPGB members from the Labour Party. Indeed, the refusal to allow the Communist Party to affiliate as a body in 1921 was a new departure in Labour Party history - most communists had been in the BSP, an organisation which was affiliated until it dissolved itself into the CPGB upon its formation.

Despite being well known as a communist, Saklatvala was endorsed as Battersea North candidate by the Labour Party National Executive Committee. When a delegate at the 1922 annual conference asked why Saklatvala had been endorsed while the candidate for Leith (another CPGB member) had not, Arthur Henderson, the general secretary, replied that Saklatvala had accepted the NEC’s conditions, whereas the Leith comrade had not. These conditions were: he should be described only as ‘the Labour candidate’, he should join the parliamentary Labour group if elected and should give prominence to the issues as defined by the NEC in the election campaign. Therefore, Henderson stated, there was no difference between the NEC’s endorsement of Saklatvala and any other candidate.

Henderson said that any inconsistency seemed to be on the part of the CPGB, and this was probably accurate. Saklatvala appears to have kept to the conditions in the 1922 general election, campaigning broadly on Labour Party policy. His election address stated:

“I enclose herewith the Labour Party’s official manifesto which I am pledged to support with the only criticism that this is the least that one can demand under the present conditions of life all over the world” (all quotes unless indicated taken from M Squires Saklatvala London 1990).

His manifesto listed in imprecise terms the need for “better state housing, the highest possible type of state education, financial provision for aged people, mothers, widows, orphans, ex-service victims and locked out workers”. It also called for “a more just distribution of the income tax”, aiming to “relieve the lower middle class earner from his income tax on unlivable incomes of £250 a year”.

Although it called for nationalisation “where grievous harm by private ownership has been clearly proved” and a levy on massed fortunes, it was hardly a revolutionary socialist manifesto. Entirely absent was the notion that socialism is the mass self-activity of the working class, achieved through its own self-liberation. Like many SLP members today, Saklatvala appeared to go along with the Labour Party view that its job was to hand down reforms to the working class once elected into government.

The Battersea branch of the CPGB was formed in late 1921 - after Saklatvala’s nomination - but there is no doubt that many individual Party members were active in the local trade union and labour movement. Saklatvala said in his election address: “The scare cry of ‘communist’ which is sure to be raised by 11th-hour leaflets will fortunately not frighten the electors of North Battersea.” He referred to two communist Labour councillors on the London County Council and six on the borough council.

In opposition to Labour in Battersea at the November 1922 election was the Conservative, HC Hogbin, supported by the Daily Telegraph, which referred to “what is in this constituency a very real socialist menace” (November 8 1922). Saklatvala received 11,311 votes (50.5%) to Hogbin’s 9,290 (41.6%) with an Independent Liberal third.

Although he was accepted as a full member of the parliamentary Labour group, Saklatvala was also referred to as a member of “the communist fraction in parliament” by the CPGB Executive Committee. The fraction’s other member, JT Walton Newbold, was elected as a communist, but the EC later made clear (in documents published at the Sixth Conference of the CPGB, May 1924) that both should operate under Party discipline:

“In the promoting of Labour candidates we are not concerned so much with the candidate getting there because of personal influence and personal deportment. The basis must be the Party programme, otherwise the victory is not for the Party at all. The points of the programme must be agreed upon by the Central Committee and operated under the jurisdiction and control of the Party executive. Moreover, when a candidate is returned to the House of Commons, he should hold his position there as a member of the Communist Party, responsible to the EC of the Party.”

However, it was added:

“Our fraction will cooperate with the Labour Party in every struggle against the capitalist parties and they will not hesitate, where the Labour Party fails to carry through the struggle, to stand and fight alone for the interests of the working class.”

It appears that Saklatvala did cooperate with the Labour group during his first period as an MP, which lasted less than a year. It is only later that he regretted his parliamentary illusions:

“I had decided to give the benefit of the doubt to the House of Commons, to take it as an assembly where democratic voice, manners, expressions and actions would be permitted if only one tried and gave them a chance. I came fresh from a constituency where most of the Irish electors were annoyed by the proposed Irish settlement, and, as in duty bound, I attempted to act up to the expectations of my democratic voters. Ridicule, contempt, sneers showered from all sides and a look of ‘Cut him out - he is no good to us in this assembly’ seemed to be upon the faces of all my colleagues. The heavy frowns were not limited to the reactionary capitalists, for MacDonald’s and Henderson’s frowns were even more severe” (Communist Review April 1926).

During his first period in parliament he came under heavy pressure from his Labour colleagues to abandon the Communist Party, a constant pressure applied to him right up to 1929, when his second spell in parliament came to an end, but a pressure which he always resisted.

Saklatvala’s term as an MP came to an end temporarily after prime minister Baldwin called a fresh election in December 1923. Although overall Labour increased its representation to the point of being able to form a minority government with liberal support, ironically Saklatvala lost his seat.

The bourgeois parties in Battersea united behind Hogbin, now nominally a Liberal, with the aid of a concerted anti-communist press campaign. The Daily Telegraph wrote:

“The borough has long been recognised as one of the nerve centres of the communist movement. By insidious propaganda, the unemployed - of whom unfortunately there are many - have been ensnared into believing the spurious promises held out to them, and a determined effort is being waged to win over both divisions in support of the Red Revolution on which to bring in the millennium of the workers” (November 19 1923).

The Evening Standard reported that Battersea was one of the four Red Boroughs in the Metropolis “... To call it a nerve centre of communism would be no exaggeration” (November 26 1923).

The press spread rumours of “communist gangs”, “Irish republican gunmen” and “Russian communists” terrorising their political opponents. The Daily Mirror advised its women readers to vote early in Battersea “and thus avoid the mobs” (December 4 1923). In fact there was no violence and Saklatvala himself was a picture of democratic moderation:

“Battersea comrades making a noise or causing disturbances at meetings of our political opponents is not in keeping with the traditions of Battersea ...” (South Western Star November 23 1923)

Despite increasing his vote to 12,341, Saklatvala was defeated by less than 200 votes. However, the minority Labour government, despite initiating no significant attempts even at reform, lost the support of the Liberals, and Ramsay MacDonald called the third general election in less than two years in November 1924.

Just three weeks before the election the Labour Party conference had voted overwhelmingly to bar CPGB members from standing for the Labour Party. It also narrowly approved a motion barring communists even from Labour membership. Despite this, the Battersea CLP voted by 104 to 14 to readopt Saklatvala. It even tried (unsuccessfully of course) to gain his endorsement from the NEC. So he stood as a communist, nominated and supported by the local Labour Party and trades council.

If anything, the working class support for him was even more enthusiastic than previously. The Daily Graphic reported:

“If Saklatvala returns to the House across the river, it won’t be because North Battersea is seething with communism. The Parsee might be Svengali, or an Indian fakir with a knowledge of black magic. He wields a magnetic influence over his audience that verges on hypnotism. I met a Battersea charwoman yesterday who was almost in tears because she lived on the wrong side of the street and couldn’t vote for Saklatvala. And I saw excited women waving his handbills and actually kissing his portrait painted on them” (October 20 1924).

In contradiction to the Daily Graphic, the Daily Telegraph insisted that Battersea was a “Mecca of communism” and described the contest as “grim struggle, as at the last election, between constitutional government and communism” (October 18 1924). The Battersea Labour Party was roundly condemned for refusing to comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of the conference resolutions banning communists. In fact the campaign was organised from Labour Party premises.

Report no278 of the Special Branch, dated October 30 1924, quotes verbatim from an internal CPGB document from a Battersea comrade to a higher committee:

“Those members known to the Labour Party as communists are working in the Labour committee rooms. Five members are engaged officially directing election work for the Labour Party and seeing that it is kept on communist lines.”

The result was a triumph for Saklatvala, who increased his vote yet again, obtaining 12,341 votes to beat Hogbin by a margin of 542.

Whereas there was a great deal of ambiguity about his communist/Labour status during his brief first term in parliament, that was certainly not the case from 1925 to 1929. This was partly due to the fact that CPGB leaders still tended towards socialistic illusions in Labour in the early 20s, but there can be no doubt also that the Central Committee was much more firm that he should be completely answerable to the Party as the lone communist representative in his second term. The Communist Party enters parliament, said the leadership,

“not in order to delude the workers that they can achieve their emancipation by its means, but to use parliament as a tribune whence to issue rallying calls and watchwords to the masses” (Speeches and documents of the Sixth Conference of the CPGB 1924).

And that is how Saklatvala was used. Sometimes his role was of crucial importance, such as constant protests against the jailing of Party leaders in the anti-communist clampdown of 1925 (he himself was jailed for two months for a speech he made on the eve of the General Strike the following year). It was he who presented the 300,000-signature petition to parliament demanding their release.

Frequently he was advised by the CC as to the exact intervention he should make in parliamentary debates. He was increasingly portrayed - correctly - as the only genuine campaigner for socialism in the House of Commons. In the introduction to one of three CPGB pamphlets, consisting entirely of his parliamentary speeches, the Party wrote:

“Bearing in mind that Saklatvala stands alone in the House, hated and detested by the entire block of Labour members, from whom he got nothing but jeers during his speech - limited as it was to 40 minutes - it was a great achievement” (Socialism and Labourism 1928).

During the whole of his time as a Party tribune, Saklatvala was subject to constant intimidatory pressure from the state. He was under permanent surveillance and his mail was continually opened. Fearing that his presence in India could spark uncontrollable rebellion in the British colony, the government prevented him from returning to his homeland right up to his death in 1936.

His personal and political behaviour was criticised on occasion by the Party. In 1927 his five children were initiated into the Parsee religion in an elaborate ceremony which he and several establishment politicians attended. The Party issued a public statement censuring the comrade for taking part in “a public religious ceremony associated with his name”: The Party, it said,

“does not require of its members that they should be atheists as a condition for joining the Party. However, the Communist Party insists that they shall not actively participate in religious propaganda” (Workers Life August 5 1927).

In 1928 he came under fire for his fulsome praise of a retiring parliamentary speaker. He also travelled to Berlin without the prior approval of the Central Committee and made a speech which was condemned by the German Communist Party.

The leadership’s reaction to these incidents, far from expelling him from the Party as some had demanded, was to attempt to exercise a firmer control over his actions. In his parliamentary role Shapurji Saklatvala was far too valuable an asset to lose, not only for the CPGB, but for the whole working class.

Peter Manson