Virtues and vices
Jack Conrad pays tribute to the role of the CPGB in 1926. But as well as heroism there were limitations
Without the Communist Party the working class in Britain would have been badly disarmed in the 1926 general strike. Ever since Red Friday the whole organisation had been labouring as one to put in place the weapons of class war - factory committees, councils of action, workers' defence corps, etc. Meanwhile, the TUC and the Labour Party sat on their hands. Nothing was done other than ready the ground for betrayal.
The CPGB stood out as the only serious revolutionary force. Yes, the best known Labour lefts, crucially in the trade unions, fancied themselves as red-hot Bolsheviki. A centrist pose. They wanted to bask in the reflected glory of the October Revolution and gain from the continued popularity of the Soviet Republic among class-conscious workers. The Labour left was ideologically muddled, unstable, sentimental and operated in an undisciplined, individualised, almost formless manner. Of course, the exact same characteristics are still on display today. Look at the 'awkward squad' of trade union general secretaries, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.
In 1926 the Labour lefts were certainly incapable of providing the single-minded leadership required to navigate the swirling currents, deadly rocks and violent storms encountered in any period of greatly heightened class struggle. As for those confessional sects that remained - Social Democratic Federation, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Labour Party, etc - they could make no impact whatsoever. Useless husks. Flotsam and jetsam from a previous age. In short there is no substitute for the organisation of Marxists in a single party. Surely one of the most important lessons for today.
The state was acutely aware that the CPGB represented its main enemy in the working class movement. Orders were issued accordingly. During the nine days of the general strike, out of the 5,000 arrests more than 1,000 of them were CPGBers. Something like 20% of our total membership. Also party offices were raided, speakers harassed, papers banned.1 Because of its outstanding role the CPGB gained enormously in terms of respect and influence, particularly among the miners. They made up the bulk of the 5,000 recruits who joined during the general strike and its immediate aftermath (a twofold increase).
When on May 13 1926 the TUC general council unanimously took the decision to call off the strike and leave the miners locked out, the CPGB damned the pack of them. It fought to maintain the strike through "emergency meetings" of all strike committees and councils of action and a campaign by the National Minority Movement to link key sections of the workers to the miners through advancing existing economic claims.2
Nevertheless, although it took some time before the mass of workers were back at work, this was due to employers weeding out militants and imposing harsh terms and conditions. Not the success of the Communist Party. The workers had been routed and were in no mood to fight on. Loyally and with a high sense of discipline, they had done as they were asked, including by the party. They had trusted the TUC and had been cruelly betrayed.
That said, nothing can take away from the selflessness and tireless hard work put in by CPGB members throughout the general strike. During the seven-month lockout the CPGB gave the miners unstinting support too. Where the TUC and Labour Party accused the miners of wanting to tie them to a "mere slogan", the CPGB backed them and their refusal to accept savage wage cuts. It demanded moral and financial support from the whole workers' movement and a coal embargo.
TUC and Labour Party right reformists saw the collapse of the general strike as a vindication of their parliamentary cretinism. They had glimpsed the terrible prospect of civil war and recoiled in terror. NUR leader CT Cramp summed up the right's collective sigh of relief with his infamous "Never again!" speech.
Most left reformists came to the same conclusion. Yet few dared openly admit it. However, between glowing socialist promises and the ugly reality of betrayal there was a chasm. Attempting to maintain an anti-capitalist image in the eyes of militants but determined to stay united with the right, the left reformist majority on the TUC general council tried to brazen it out. There had been no sell-out! They had all voted to call off the strike and desert the miners, but talk of treachery was, so they said, completely unfounded. The Socialist Party in England and Wales makes similar pleas nowadays over pension rights for civil servants. A circle Peter Taaffe tries to square in a series of rather desperate passages in his recent book on the 1926 general strike.3
The TUC stated the obvious: "The general strike is ended." Then under the equally obvious influence of its left Labourites, and using almost exactly the same formulation as Arthur Scargill after the defeat of the miners' strike in 1985, the TUC went on to claim: "It has not failed."4 Every other section of society might think otherwise - government, BBC, rightwing Labourites, intellectuals, bosses, rank and file workers, etc - then they must all be mad.5 Building workers' leader Alf Purcell wrote in the Sunday Worker6 of "more real working class progress" being made in a "few days" than "in as many years previously "¦ Those who talk about the failure of the general strike are mentally a generation behind the times in which we live".7 A similar diagnosis informed the article penned by another left Labourite, TUC president George Hicks: "Was the general strike a victory or defeat? I reply: who has gained the most from it? The working class has gained infinitely more from the general strike than has the capitalist class "¦ Of course the general strike has been a success - a great victory. Those who talk about the general strike being a failure and of the uselessness of the general strike as a weapon must be living in a world of their own imagining."8
Especially given 20:20 hindsight vision, it is easy to see who was living in a fantasy world. But it is vital to recognise that at the time many fell for such outrageous fabrications. As they still do even in our enlightened age of widespread higher education, home computers and scientific TV programmes.
Good and bad
Serious revolutionaries can only but admire the CPGB of 1926. An admiration that in my case only grows in leaps and bounds when I compare the class-wide impact of this tiny party to the sectarian ineffectiveness, grovelling rightism and popular frontism of today's left groups (divided into far more than 57 varieties, the contemporary left repeats all the mistakes of 20th century 'official communism' and even manages to add a few more besides).
Yet we must never give up our critical faculties. After all, to question is the first condition for leadership. Frankly, there were significant shortcomings in 1926. Partially this was because the CPGB was still very young and inexperienced. But there was more to it than that. The CPGB rejected British parochialism and displayed an exemplary organisational effectiveness, in large measure due to the inspiration and guidance provided by the Russian Bolsheviks via the medium of the Communist International. However, as well as gaining markedly in strength from Comintern, there came weaknesses too. Doubtless to begin with this was a case of 80%:20%.
Throughout its history, good and bad, the CPGB leadership obediently, doggedly, did its best to follow the advice/instructions/cues that came from Moscow. The CPGB never had a record of independent thinking or creatively developing Marxist theory.
In the 1920s the only comrade with anything approaching a firm grasp of Marxism was Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1976). However, while his writings display a certain breadth and intellectual glitter, their purpose was always essentially apologetic. In April 1926 that could mean penning a first-rate defence of Trotsky's splendid pamphlet Where is Britain going? He thoroughly exposed the "vague confusion and shoddy sentiment" of Trotsky's numerous British critics.9 Sadly, by 1928 Palme Dutt had though become a devoted, slavish follower of Joseph Stalin. A position he maintained for the rest of his life.
Painfully small, the CPGB both sought to maintain revolutionary principles and gain a hearing from the left-moving masses. The latter to be achieved first and foremost through a united front with the Labour left - the National Minority Movement in the trade unions and the National Leftwing Movement within the Labour Party. Developments such as these were welcomed and encouraged by the Russian party/state leadership - Moscow being desperate to break the diplomatic isolation imposed upon the Soviet Republic by the imperialist powers and fend off the danger of another interventionist war.
Needless to say, any principled united front goes hand in hand with an inbuilt tension. Communists need to maintain unity with the Labour lefts and therefore their social base; they also need to build the revolutionary pole through criticising and eventually defeating them. A difficult, perhaps impossibly difficult, balancing act. Not surprisingly the whole general strike period abounds with zig-zagging, equivocation and barely disguised vacillation over unity/criticism.
The contradiction between unity and criticism negatively resolved into rightist solutions. Roughly in 1924-25 the CPGB seems to have cohered around a perspective of gradually and patiently moving the Labour Party and the TUC further and further to the left through a combination of winning the argument below and mobilising to elect and then "educate and persuade" left leaders. Presumably culminating in a Labour-communist government, a so-called step to the "full dictatorship of the proletariat".
In 1925 Palme Dutt seriously suggested that left trade union leaders "occupy at present the position, not only of leaders of the workers in the immediate crisis, but also of the spokesmen of the working class elements in the Labour Party - it might almost be said, an alternative political leadership." 10 With wit and biting irony Trotsky tore to shreds such misguided assessments and Palme Dutt himself seems to have undergone a change of heart. Without crediting his teacher, Palme Dutt took up Trotsky's specific arguments on the left Labourites, albeit in a somewhat bowdlerised form.
Unwillingness to credit Trotsky was obviously morally unforgivable; nevertheless it was, given the circumstances, politically understandable. By the mid-1920s the campaign against 'Trotskyism' had begun in Russia and Trotsky was a dangerous man to positively acknowledge within Comintern circles. He was being demonised. The CPGB's 7th Congress of May 1925 passed a resolution that woodenly repeated the Soviet party's vilification of 'Trotskyism'. JT Murphy supplied an introduction to the English edition of The errors of Trotskyism, written by Nicolai Bukharin and Lev Kamenev.
The home-grown errors of the CPGB itself were nowhere more obvious than over the significance of a general strike. As I have argued on numerous occasions, through its own logic the general strike poses the question of power. Showing the inconsistency of the CPGB, this entirely orthodox line of argument was presented by none other than JT Murphy in September 1925: "Let us be clear what a general strike means. It can only mean the throwing down of the gauntlet to the capitalist state, and all the powers at its disposal. Either that challenge is only a gesture, in which case the capitalist class will not worry about it; or it must develop its challenge into an actual fight for power, in which case we land into civil war. Any leaders who talk about a general strike without facing this obvious fact are bluffing both themselves and the workers."11
Eight months later and only two days before the actually living general strike, the same comrade was perhaps joining those who were "bluffing both themselves and the workers": "Those who are leading have no revolutionary perspectives before them. Any revolutionary implication they may perceive will send the majority of them hot on the track of a defeat. Those who do not look for a path along which to retreat are good trade union leaders who have sufficient character to stand firm on the demands of the miners, but they are totally incapable of moving forward to face all the implications of a united working class challenge to the state."12
In other words a middle way between the Scylla of surrender and the Charybdis of revolutionary struggle was considered feasible. "Good trade union leaders" could defend the miners through a general strike, while not mounting a challenge to the existing constitutional order. This illusory industrial use of the general strike was explicitly defended in the CPGB executive committee's statement adopted after the failure of the general strike at its extended meeting of May 29-31 1926.
Its agreed resolution urged workers not to accept the argument that the general strike must "end either in revolution or the complete defeat of the working class".13 To suggest otherwise was a "travesty of the facts" . There can be a general strike that neither goes forward to revolution nor backwards to defeat. If led "with the necessary courage", there can be the general strike "for definite concessions".14
No one should deny the utility of a one-day or limited general strike as a gesture of protest. Indefinite strike action by the class, a real general strike, is another matter entirely. As we have seen, even the threat of one causes the middle classes to polarise. In Britain some 100,000 mainly middle class volunteers joined the OMS, yet many others from the same class background sided with the miners. Alongside this there were associated splits and divisions within the governing establishment - eg, Churchill sought naked dictatorship, Baldwin tempered; meanwhile Lloyd George talked of compromise and a possible coalition with MacDonald's wing of the Labour Party.
Certainly, once a general strike begins, it releases latent proletarian energy and creativity. With the declaration of a general strike a fateful step along the road to power has already been taken. To prosecute the strike and protect its unity necessitates rapid and ceaseless advance. 'Onward, onward, ever onward' must be its motto.
It is not a question of the "complete deÂfeat of the working class", but it has to be either the victory of the existing capitalist state or the victory of the working class. One or the other. Those who suggest otherwise are, yes, "bluffing both themselves and the workers". Does that mean instant social revolution and the immediate seizure of power by the working class? Hardly. But it does mean the road towards that goal has to be pursued, crucially beginning with overthrowing the existing constitution. Such a political victory breaks through the capitalist order's protective outer shell and readies the workers to become the ruling power.
As stated above, the CPGB's evident confusion on the significance of the general strike stemmed from a right communist viewpoint, which assumed that the basic contradiction in the working class movement revolved around an ill-defined left-right axis, and thus downgraded or entirely forget about the more profound contradiction between revolution and reformism, as specifically manifested in the programmatic attitude taken towards the existing constitution and the state. Following on from this error, in an effort to promote "genuine leftwingers", there develops an entirely false estimation of the trade union bureaucracy taken as a whole. The CPGB began to see its strategic task as winning the trade unions and through that "completely" changing the "policy and leadership of the Labour Party" so that it becomes the decisive instrument of working class self-liberation.15 It hardly needs saying that such hopes came to grief time and again.
"Genuine leftwingers" - ie, the leading left Labourites - were what they were because of the combined pressure of the CPGB and a militant rank and file. Left Labourism, however, simultaneously weakens and diverts those pressures and acts as a safety valve. True, the left Labourites spoke of a glorious socialist future and wanted to be seen defending the beleaguered Soviet Union. However, they were tied body and soul to the Labourite right and thereby in the last analysis to the British state. Theirs was a British national socialism, to be achieved through the existing constitution. Because the programme of the left Labourites is eclectic, soppy and unworkable, they inevitably turn to, or into, right Labourites when it comes to implementing practical politics.
Moreover, not being subject to instant recall by those who elect them, not working under strict fractional discipline, not being accountable to a revolutionary party, the further they climb up the bureaucratic ladder, the more left reformists are sociologically and psychologically removed from the rank and file and the more prone they are to flattery, bribery and identification with the pro-imperialist right and eventual incorporation into the gilded bourgeois establishment.
The right-communist error that the CPGB could "educate and persuade" the left Labourites to pursue a general strike through to a successful finish was subject to contestation within the party. Hence the apparent inconsistency, violent swings and considerable confusion in the party's pronouncements. Sometimes dire warnings were issued about the left Labourites. At other times the CPGB was either arguing that "good" lefts could be won over, or even that the bureaucracy as a whole should not be challenged because force of circumstance - ie, spontaneity - would see the TUC successfully lead the working class to victory, almost despite the trade union bureaucracy's compromising instincts and nature.
For example, in October 1924, in the immediate afterglow of the formation of the NMM, JR Campbell was writing: "It would be a suicidal policy for the CP and the Minority Movement to place too much [sic] reliance on the official left wing. It is the duty of the party and the Minority Movement to criticise its weakness and relentlessly endeavour to change the muddled and incompetent leftwing viewpoint of the more progressive leaders into a real revolutionary viewpoint."16 Almost exactly a year later JT Murphy had taken this wishful-thinking policy of converting leaders to the point where "We should ... recognise the general council as the general staff of the unions directing the unions in the struggle".17
Such ideological hermaphroditism led the CPGB to claim that the miners could be defended "only" by a general strike that would lead to civil war and at the same time that wages and hours could be preserved by "concessions" won by "good" left leaders who could get the general council to "stand firm". True, at the 8th Congress over October 16-17 1926 there was in effect a disowning of this, what had been a right-communist reliance on trade union officialdom.
It was agreed that the "principal lesson" of the general strike was the need to convince the working class: "That the only way to complete victory is the destruction of the capitalist state and its replacement by a workers' state based on the mass organisations of the workers. The necessities of this developing struggle will compel the working class under the leadership of the Communist Party to struggle for the elimination of the present trade union bureaucracy, and the revolutionising of the trade union and labour movement in outlook, policy and structure. Without the defeat of the labour bureaucracy, more and more revealing itself as the agent of capitalism within the labour movement, the successful struggle of the workers is impossible."18
Notwithstanding this partial recantation, it is more than a pity that the congenital venality of the trade union bureaucracy was not fully appreciated and therefore consistently explained to the militant rank and file before the general strike began.19 If it had been, the CPGB would have actively, systematically and constructively undermined the trust the mass of workers had placed in reformist leaders - crucially the trust they had in centrists - those who had often been presented as principled allies by the party prior to and during the 1926 general strike.
Surely one of the handicaps that prevented the CPGB simultaneously educating itself and the advanced section of the working class in Britain was the absence of factional rights. The CPGB as a whole relied on the correctness of the executive committee in King Street and in turn King Street relied on the correctness of the Communist International and its controlling national section in Moscow. Even while Lenin lived, this carried its problems.
Factions were banned in the Russian Communist Party as an emergency measure in 1921. However, almost instantly this essentially military measure became enshrined as Comintern doctrine. Democratic centralism was drifting inexorably into bureaucratic centralism. Unity around Lenin and Trotsky was one thing; we have suggested 80%:20% as a fitting artistic description. Pluses for the CPGB far outweighed minuses. With the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, that was perhaps down to 60%:40%. But unity around Stalin and Bukharin was a complete disaster. For those committed to 'Moscow knows best' there was no escape route (we shall discuss the Russians and the British general strike in one of the following articles in this series).
Anyway, if the CPGB had allowed factions in 1925, the confusions, inconsistencies, vacillation and criticisms could have been hardened, ie, taken to factional form - which to be principled must necessarily reach down to districts and branches and involve the open publication and subsequent elaboration of crucial differences. There had to be more than central committee manoeuvrings and coded language in the party press.
Doubtless the establishment of rival factions would have been condemned as diversionary by conservative elements. Eg, the party should not engage in unnecessary discussion before a pending social explosion. However, as well as bringing the possibility of splits as a last resort, factions bring clarity "¦ and thereby educate and create the conditions for a higher, stronger unity. Workers' Weekly versus Sunday Worker should have given birth to the Workers' Daily. A hard faction committed to a united front with left Labourites but that places its main emphasis on implacable criticism of them might have begun as a minority on the CPGB's executive committee. It would, though, be well placed to become the majority.
Lack of correct theoretical orientation must have contributed to the party's failure at this auspicious and fateful moment to make the decisive leap into mass politics, and gaining a membership numbered not in the thousands, but the hundreds of thousands. In 1926 it was well within the grasp of the CPGB to establish itself as an alternative centre of authority to the trade union bureaucracy and challenge the Labour Party as the natural party of the working class. Warnings that left and right reformists were nothing but different sides of the same coin would at the very least have meant a less severe collapse in working class morale after the general strike debacle.
Exploiting the contradictions between left and right reformism is good politics - if it advances the cause of communism. But the party actually fostered illusions in the labour bureaucracy, a mistake encapsulated in the slogan, 'All power to the general council'. Even though the usual slogan carried in leaflets, bulletins and manifestos was 'More power to the TUC', the fact that 'All power to the general council' could be used at all shows that the CPGB leadership, or at least the majority of its executive, suffered from the syndicalistic notion that the TUC general council could act in a revolutionary way, take state power and provide the paradigm of socialism in Britain.
The more modest slogan of 'More power' resulted from a legitimate desire to centralise the struggles of the working class. Yet the fact of the matter is that the TUC did and still does embody collective sectionalism. Unless it is led by communists - authentic communists, as I constantly emphasise - there is not the remotest chance of it representing the interests of the working class taken as a whole. That requires Marxism and the organisation of the working class into a Communist Party. As to the 'All power' slogan, it not only smacked of an artificial transplantation of the Russian slogan, 'All power to the soviets', but totally misunderstood the real content of Bolshevism.
It is all well and good placing demands on the left-posing TUC in order to put it to the test and mobilising around demands that allow the working class to learn through its own experience that the TUC lefts are unable and unwilling to lead a revolutionary struggle. That said, facing the intrinsic possibilities contained within the general strike should have involved an orientation to the new and flexible, not a harking back to the old and inflexible. We will never waver in our perspective of "winning the unions", but that does not blind us to the fact that the TUC is a body that by definition can only change with glacial slowness.20 It is the flabby offspring of social peace, collective bargaining and parliamentary lobbying, not rank-and-file self-activity and class war.
The councils of action are another matter entirely. These bodies might in most cases have acted as little more than TUC transmission belts in May 1926. But that is to be expected. Russia's soviets began life under the political domination of Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary opportunists. Despite that they had the institutional elasticity needed to expand in influence, democracy and functioning, as events unfolded. Being in essence rank-and-file bodies, the councils of action also reflected the consciousness and fighting capacities of the advanced section of the working class. Even with the influx of the average and then what were the backward sections of the working class, they had the potential to act as organs of an uprising and therefore the institutions of dual power, not only at a local level, but through a National Council of Action for the country as a whole. The councils of action in May 1926 had the possibility of becoming city-wide, bypassing officialdom and mobilising decisive action. 21 That made them embryonic soviets.
There was more than a whiff of conservatism in the CPGB's call for a Labour government. As a rule, in the 1920s the slogan, 'For the formation of a Labour government', was perfectly correct, at least if it was combined with the tactics needed to educate. Voting for a Labour government must never imply simply choosing the lesser evil. Rather it is a tactic designed to build the revolutionary alternative. The mass of workers, at least those with a medium level of class-consciousness, believed Labour could and would overcome all the problems of capitalism and introduce socialism through parliament and a parliamentary majority. That intermediate section of the working class had to learn through its own experience and in time be won through that to communism.
So, faced with a run-of-the-mill general election, it was quite right for the communists to support Labour, albeit like a rope supports a hanged man. But it is another matter to stick to those tactics in the midst of a general strike, when the question of state power is unequivocally posed.
As with 'All power to the TUC', the call for the formation of a Labour government was to overstress the old and undynamic, and, in terms of the Labour Party, the marginalised.22 Nor should it be forgotten that the Labour Party was under the pro-imperialist, pro-monarchist leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, a man who was urging compromise with the Baldwin government and who for good reason was being courted by Lloyd George and his rump of the Liberal Party.
That is not to suggest that the CPGB should have ignored the overthrow of the MacDonald government in 1924 through the forged 'Zinoviev letter'. Yet instead of calling for the re-election of a rightwing Labour Party, the emphasis should have been placed squarely on the widely accepted fact that the Baldwin government gained its massive 200-plus parliamentary majority illegitimately through fraud. The Baldwin government was therefore anti-democratic.
The CPGB should have turned the tables on the claims pouring out from the BBC, the British Gazette and the Tory front bench in parliament that the government was gallantly standing guard over democracy. Rank hypocrisy. Blatant lies.
Defence of the miners had to be joined, programmatically fused, with the offensive struggle for more democracy. Baldwin and the coal owners could only attack the hard-won gains of the working class, crucially those of the miners, because of Britain's lack of democracy. Hence, instead of the slogan, 'All power to the general council', the CPGB needed to win the working class to energetically, confidently and determinedly rescue the flag of democracy from the clutches of the ruling class. Concretely the CPGB should have been agitating for a democratic republic (Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels called this the state form of the dictatorship, or rule, of the working class).
That could never be achieved simply through a routine general election and under a monarchical constitutional system, which fundamentally consists of a whole series of checks and balances against democracy. Leave aside the miseducation system, religious opiates, the dulling mass media and the billions of golden strings in the hands of those who own or control the means of production: the United Kingdom's monarch is constitutionally head of church and state, formally chooses the prime minister and acts as a personalised rallying point for counterrevolution.
Before that last line of defence there is prime ministerial patronage and the House of Lords, which can endlessly frustrate the democratic will of the population. After that there follow the courts, which overrule legislation; and, of course, then there is the secret services, the police and the armed forces. Pledged to king and country, they stand in reserve, ever ready to strike at the enemies of capital.
Therefore what was needed in 1926 was a strategy for the overthrow of the existing constitution. Abroad that meant a bold call for the oppressed natives in the British empire to rebel and at home the convening of a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage (men and women equally from the age of 18). In other words there had to be the fight for extreme democracy.