In August this year, it will be just 75 years since the Communist Party was first launched in Britain.
When it was founded on 1 August 1920, the new party was intended to be a flagship of world-wide proletarian revolution whose first battalions had just defeated the all-powerful tsarist dictatorship in Russia. There, workers' soviets had taken over control of the country and were expropriating the capitalist and landowning classes.
History took another path, however. The revolutionary wave which had been triggered by the October revolution receded. And within less than ten years, the political system created by the October revolution succumbed to its isolation from the main forces of the world proletariat - it started degenerating beyond recognition.
Over the past decade, this degeneration seems to have reached what may turn out to be its last stage with the breakup of the vast federation of peoples built by the efforts of the revolutionary workers of 1917, the Soviet Union.
In Britain, the Communist Party had been in decline for years even before these developments reached that point in the USSR and it broke up before the USSR did. Today, none of the various remaining groups and currents which came out of the Communist Party can claim to retain, even remotely, the weight or the impact that this party once had on the British political scene.
Of course, apologists of the capitalist system can be expected to seize upon the failure of the Communist Party here to proclaim, yet again, that communism is dead. Having so precious little to support the idea that capitalism has a future, they can only cling to whatever weakness they can find in the working class movement. Unfortunately, many activists in the revolutionary Left seem to take a similar approach or rather to adapt to the dominant fashion.
We do not think, however, that revolutionary communists, who have chosen the side of the working class in the war against capitalism, can afford to be choosy and disown such a political tradition because of its failure. After all, what is the history of the working class made of, if not a succession of movements and organisations, some of which failed, disappeared or were destroyed in the confrontation between classes while others became corrupted to the point where they lost any link with the expectations they had created among the exploited? Yet, successful or not, all these currents have represented a stage in the struggle for the emancipation of our class. The traditions created by these currents - and the British Communist Party due to its historical links with the Russian Revolution - -are part of a class tradition and wealth of experience in the fight against capitalist oppression which the working class must retain and learn from if it is to change this world in the future.
The roots of the communist movement in Britain
On 6 March 1919 the "Manifesto to the world's proletariat" issued by the new International initiated by the Russian Bolsheviks - the Third International or Communist International as it came to be known - stressed that the time had come to translate propaganda into action. The new International was to be that of «open mass action» and «revolutionary realisation». And it added: «The bourgeois world order has been sufficiently lashed by socialist criticism. The task of the International Communist Party consists in overthrowing this order and erecting in its place the edifice of the socialist order.»
Armed with this new flag, new communist organisations and parties started emerging and developing across the world, bringing together those industrial workers - but also rural labourers, artisans, intellectuals - who were now looking towards the example set by the Russian working class.
It was under such circumstances that the Communist Party was launched in Britain. Like in every other country, however, this party did not emerge from a vacuum: it was also the product of the history and traditions of its own working class. But whereas in countries like Germany or France, the new Communist Parties came out of the existing large workers' organisations, this was not the case in Britain.
Not that there were no Marxist organisations in Britain by the time the Russian Revolution broke out. The largest among them, the British Socialist Party (BSP) was the direct descendant of the old Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) set up as early as 1881. The Socialist Labour Party, which was mostly based in Scotland, was another heir of the old SDF, dating back to 1903. In addition there were a number of smaller, mostly regional groups such as Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers' Socialist Federation in East London, and others, particularly in Wales. In addition, several Marxist groupings, such as the Plebs League, focused on the education of the working class and produced some quite prominent activists like John MacLean in Scotland.
But altogether these groups organised at most a few thousand activists. In and of themselves they would have had very little influence on the working class and even less impact on events if it had not been for two waves of radicalisation in the class struggle which gave to these groups, or at least to some of their main figures, a disproportionate prominence and influence - the "Great Unrest", as it was called, just before World War I, and the wave of industrial unrest during the war itself.
The years 1910 to 1914 saw the largest strike wave ever in Britain. It started among seamen and dockers, against their stringent conditions of employment. The strikes rapidly spread to other sections of workers leading to a general social war in the main ports and several large cities, including London. In Liverpool, for several weeks the town was taken over by a transport strike committee led by Tom Mann, one of the leaders in the 1889 Dock Strike. Martial law was declared, the troops were sent in - even the Navy arrived on the Mersey - and several strikers were shot dead in Liverpool and Wales.
As a direct follow-up to the events in Liverpool, railway workers held their first national rail strike ever. The miners joined in too, through a series of regional strikes which led eventually, in March 1912, to the first national miners strike, for a minimum wage in the mines, which involved one million miners. Meanwhile, in Dublin, James Connolly and Jim Larkin led an eight-month battle against the threatened derecognition of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union
In 1913 alone, 1,500 separate strikes were recorded, more than ever before. All in all, in the four-year period up to 1913, strikes increased fourfold. Union membership went up by 50%, mostly in the new amalgamated industrial unions of Transport Workers, Dockers and Railworkers. But unionisation also developed among previously unorganised sections - for instance among farm labourers and even among low-paid civil servants.
This militant wave brought new aspirations and demands which were not met by the existing union structures. In many cases the strikers had to by-pass the official union machineries, if not oppose them. Their actions were often condemned in Parliament by politicians including many of those who pretended to speak on behalf of workers. As a result, the brand of revolutionary syndicalism advocated by leading figures of the strike wave like Tom Mann, gained a new currency among the strikers. Mann, who had recently returned from the USA, had been influenced by the ideas of the IWW or "Industrial Workers of the World". These included in particular the idea of "one big union" organising all workers, which would eventually take over control of the economy through a general strike, thereby causing the collapse of capitalism. This way workers would be able to assume power, free of all politicians and political manipulations. For many workers with no rights, let alone the right to vote, the syndicalist perspective with its militant and anti-political edge, made more sense than leaving oneself in the hands of hostile or indifferent politicians.
The outbreak of World war I brought the Labour Party unequivocally into the bourgeois fold with the formation of the War Cabinet and the integration of both Labour MP's and Trade Union leaders into the cabinet machinery. The purpose was of course the regimentation of the working class for war production embodied in the Munitions Act passed in July 1915 with the support of the Labour and union leaders swept aside existing union rights.
Among the various political organisations, a significant minority took an immediate stand against the war. The SLP was clearly opposed to it as was a majority of the BSP, seeing it as a war between imperialist powers for the division of the spoils in which the working class should have no part.
But the main opposition was to come from the ranks of the working class. Many of the former activists of the "Great Unrest" refused to be sucked into the militaristic nationalism advocated by the union machineries. And when the opportunity of a fightback arose in 1916 and 1917, against the onslaught on working conditions, wages and the dilution of labour resulting from the Munitions Act, these activists took the lead of the discontent in direct opposition to the official trade union and Labour leadership.
Thus, on the Clyde, one of the most important areas for war production in the engineering and shipbuilding industry, a Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) was set up on the basis of workshop representatives in October 1915. Among the leading figures of the CWC was Willie Gallacher, then an engineering worker in the Glasgow Albion works and a member of the BSP, who had been a strike leader there in 1912. Another one was Harry MacShane, from the Weir munitions plant, also a member of the BSP. Many other leading stewards were members of the SLP, like JT Murphy. And, closely collaborating with the CWC were John MacLean and Jimmie MacDougall, both of them consistent agitators against the war and also BSP members.
That Marxist activists opposed to the war should have sought to play a role in such a movement was, of course, logical, although their organisations did not succeed - in fact did not try - to provide the movement with a political backbone. On the other hand, the important point was that through the CWC, these activists succeeded in leading large layers of workers into a fight against the war effort and built an influence which went far beyond that of the BSP and SLP put together.
Though the CWC was temporarily smashed after the peak of the strike wave, in March 1916, through deportations and imprisonment of its leaders, the idea of shop stewards committees caught on and soon in Sheffield, the Midlands, Barrow, Tyneside and Woolwich in London, similar forms of organisation were appearing. By May 1917, another wave of strikes erupted, over the defence of craft privileges, but by this time the government was trying new tactics - and decided that the only way to try to take the heat out of the unofficial movement was to begin to recognise the workshop committees.
The impact of the Russian Revolution
What the bourgeoisie could do nothing about, however, was the effect of the Russian Revolution in October 1917. This was the event which most decisively influenced the somewhat fragmented and disparate movement of shop stewards committees, socialist organisations and unorganised workers and soldiers who had opposed the Labour Partys participation in the war effort. Immediately the CWC, the SLP and the BSP enthusiastically hailed the Russian Revolution. The idea that an alternative, a bolshevik-type organisation, should be set up to lead the working class to seize power in Britain began to take shape amongst these militants who had already rejected parliamentarianism.
As it turned out, the task was not an easy one. The fact that these activists and groups came from many different backgrounds did not help. There were long standing gripes between the SLP and BSP activists, and between them and the not insignificant numbers from the ILP who were now shifting towards communist ideas. The leaders of the shop stewards' movement were suspicious of the various organisations and jealous of preserving their own autonomy. These tensions were compounded by political differences. The issue of whether the new party should participate in elections led, for instance, to a temporary split very early on while another significant difference had to do with the attitude of the future party towards the reformist organisations, both towards the unions and the Labour Party.
Eventually, a Unity Conference took place in August 1920. This was held between four main groups - the BSP, SLP, WSF (Workers' Socialist Federation of Sylvia Pankhurst) and SWSS (South Wales Socialist Society) consisting predominently of miners. And the Communist Party which came out of it formally affiliated to the Third International at its next conference in January 1921.
Having grown out of a series of militant waves, the new party was overwhelmingly working class in composition right from its inception. It was a different kind of organisation compared to all its predecessors. Its aim and only reason to exist was the social transformation of society. It was a revolutionary organisation which dismissed any form of reformism to achieve its aims and relied on combining the day-to-day class struggle with the fight over wider political issues as a means to shift the balance of class forces in favour of the working class. It was a militant organisation which planned to make the best of its collective resources to shape events rather than relying solely on propaganda and the chance role of its leaders, as had been the case of most of its predecessors. Finally, as an organisation, it was an integral part of a powerful world revolutionary party, the Third International, which aimed at merging the forces and experience of the proletariat worldwide to overthrow capitalism.
The fight for the masses
The fledgling Communist Party had a long way to go before it could claim to be a real communist party in the Bolshevik sense. The new party was small in numbers - a few thousand activists at most, many of whom had little experience. But numerical size on its own was not necessarily a major obstacle. The main problem was the fact that the party lacked a real influence among at least a sizeable section of the working class.
The first task of the Communist Party was therefore to build some influence through its political intervention rather than just propaganda. The Third Congress of the Communist International, which took place nearly a year after the founding of the Communist Party in Britain, spelt out how this task could be carried out: «The Communist Parties can only develop through struggle. Even the smallest parties should not limit themselves to propaganda and agitation. The Communists must act as a vanguard in every mass organisation (..) Only by leading the concrete struggles of the proletariat and by taking them forward will the Communists really be able to win the broad proletarian masses to the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.»
Underlying the overall strategy outlined by the International was the fact that «on a world scale the open revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for power is at present passing through a stoppage, a slowing down in tempo». The impact of the world situation was all the more severe in Britain as it coincided with the collapse of the shortlived postwar economic boom by the end of 1920, and a subsequent vicious offensive by the capitalists to cut wages and conditions. By mid-1921, unemployment in the engineering industry rose to 27%, decimating the unofficial shop stewards movement and leaving the newly amalgamated engineering union with a drastically shrunken membership. By the end of the year, 17.8% of insured workers were jobless, and six million workers had had their wages cut by an average 8s/week.
The retreat of the revolutionary wave meant that the grip of the reformist leaders and organisations over the working class was being stengthened. In Britain, the vast majority of politicised and militant workers remained either in the unions or in the Labour Party. How was the Communist Party to gain influence among workers then? Could CP activists remain outside the reformist unions and aim at building revolutionary unions, as many were still arguing? No, advised the International, for «Party criticism coming from the outside is less effective than the persistant, daily efforts of the Communist cells in the trade unions to show up and discredit the hypocrites and traitors of the union movement who, in Britain more than in any country, have become political pawns in the hands of the capitalists.»
It was the same reasoning that brought Lenin to advocate that the Communist Party should seek affiliation to the Labour Party. Needless to say, none of these orientations went down too easily among the many CP members who had had to wage an on-going and increasingly bitter battle with the union leaders, not to mention those of the Labour Party. But by and large, the party's membership followed the move, all the more so as the retreat of the working class was accelerating. After the defeat of the miners in April 1921 came that of the engineering workers the following year and the dockers in 1923. Already by 1922, the party had begun to lose members and was down to only 2,300 paid-up members out of a total of 5,116 paper members. There was no space for complacency nor for illusions about splendid isolation.
Up against repression
In addition to unfavourable economic and social conditions, the party had to face from its very beginning, frequent and severe repression from the state, like no other working class organisation experienced in Britain.
Already, after the first Unity Conference, the Midlands organiser was arrested. Sylvia Pankhurst was jailed for six months in January 1921. By early May 1921, after the defeat of the miners, 35 communists were jailed; by the end of June, 70. Willie Gallagher, Harry Pollitt, and a number of leading figures all served sentences in the same year. The Party headquarters were raided, the offices of its weekly The Communist ransacked, and the paper censored time and again, being regularly published with white gaps in its pages. And Albert Inkpin, the Party Secretary, was sentenced to six months hard labour in January 1922, under the Defence of the Realm Act, for having published a translation of some of the texts adopted by the 3rd Congress of the Communist International. Any "foreigner" associated with the CP including Russians who had been resident in Britain since 1905, like Theodore Rothstein, was deported. An anti-red campaign was consistently run in the press on the grounds that the CP was living off Moscow gold and guilty of traitorous acts towards the state.
Still worse was to come. In late 1925, having narrowly avoided an all-out confrontation with the miners, the government started preparing the ground for another, on their own chosen ground. To begin with they turned the law against the Communist Party. In September 1925 the 12 members of the CP executive were arrested - including Pollitt, Gallagher, Hannington, Tom Bell, JT Murphy, Inkpin and Campbell. They were charged with sedition and incitement to mutiny of the armed forces. They were given 6-12 month sentences and sent to Wandsworth prison where they remained for the whole duration of the General Strike until they were released the following September.
And this is not to mention the day-to-day harassment and frequent jailing of rank-and-file members for paper sales, street meetings and demonstrations, particularly those who were active in the unemployed movement. Being an active communist in those days was certainly not choosing a cosy life and the communist activists who stuck to their guns through that period were certainly of a better quality than those who preferred the relative protection of the reformist organisations.
Building the party in the class
One of the first prerequisites for the Communist Party in order to develop its influence in the struggles of the working class was to establish a permanent political presence, visible to all workers where it mattered as far as the class struggle was concerned - in the workplaces.
From 1922 onwards, practical steps were taken in that direction, in fact in all sections of the Third International. From being a collection of local branches, the party switched the emphasis to building workplace branches. Even the choice of words - the branches were to be called "cells" - was meant to stress the tight working relationship which was aimed at, both within the cells and between the different cells.
Harry Wicks, who was a member of the Young Communist League and the Communist Party from the very beginning in Battersea, described his political work while working in the railways at Victoria Station in 1923:
«When I began to build a workplace branch of the party on Victoria Station, I was the only member. But I was not without supporters (..) In the guards' and shunters' lobbies could be found pre-1914 Herald League and ILP members, many of whom were committed supporters of Battersea Labour Party's left wing politics. Outside the station, I had the help and expertise of Claude Healey, the Westminster Communist Party organiser. He was secretary of the typewriter mechanics' trade union and had an office in Fleet Street (..) It was from there that we produced the two page 'Victoria Signal' fortnightly, though its actual content was prepared by regularly calling supporters to meetings in the lavatory attendants' lobby at Victoria itself.
«That paper won extraordinary support. It circulated up and down the Brighton line and was looked for. If it arrived anywhere late, you were soon made aware of this. Even the platform inspectors paid their halfpenny. The reason for its popularity lay in its agitational treatment of simple issues and its lead on how to remedy a wrong. It brought into prominence the ordinary grievances of railwaymen and carried their discontent into the union branches. In that way, the hope was to build solid support for Communist politics in the union branch»
But although Wicks was a rank-and-file member in those days, his activities towards workplaces were not confined to Victoria: «The 'Victoria Signal' was merely one of three such efforts I was involved in. In Dorman and Long's steel work (..) we had a YCL factory cell, which produced a duplicated paper called the "Iron Fighter". And at Nine Elms - which was not only a marshalling yard but also had engine sheds - we had contacts or party members, and so the Nine Elm Spark, a factory paper, was produced there.»
Developing activities such as these factory papers, which were carried out both under the Communist Party banner and outside the control of the union machineries, became a basic activity. They cemented the communist members and supporters in their collective day-to-day work while at the same time winning them support among rank-and-file workers and preparing them for possible direct interventions in large-scale events like strikes. But to be able to intervene in the day-to-day struggle against exploitation and to try and influence the union activists involved in it, CP members had to build up an activity in the unions as well.
Communist work in the unions
By the end of 1922, the re-orientation of the Communist Party resulted in focusing on three complementary directions of work. On the one hand, factory committees were set up with the aim of bringing together workers who wanted a fightback, regardless of which unions they were in or whether they were in a union at all. But the success in developing such forms of organisation was dependent on militancy and was therefore uneven.
On the other hand, of course, all communist members and supporters in a workplace were instructed to take an active part in the life of their union and efforts were devoted by the party to co-ordinate their intervention across branch and union boundaries. The main vehicle for this coordination became the Minority Movements which began to develop from 1921 onwards.
Initially these new unofficial union bodies had been created to formalise the sympathy enjoyed so far by the Red International among trade-unionists. The first Minority Movement had been set up in the South Wales mines, then later others had been set up in engineering and shipbuilding. These Minority Movements provided industry-wide platforms for militant union activists to challenge the grip of the reformist leaders and to overcome the sectional divisions maintained by the existing union structures in each industry. More importantly they were a framework in which communist activists could work side by side with union activists who, although reformist, were just as distrustful and defiant towards the union leadership as the CP was.
Conditions were of course different to what we know today. If only because union activists had just been through over a decade of almost continuous industrial unrest and war. Despite the recession, union bodies had a life of their own and many officials of the time, including reformist ones, would probably be branded raving subversives by today's standards. There were many such radical non-communist activists in and around the Minority Movements, which also in some cases included whole branch machineries.
In August 1924, a conference of militant trade unionists, including representatives of existing Minority Movement committees, met to launch a National Minority Movement. Harry Pollitt was elected president. At its annual conferences, the numbers of union branches, trades councils and factory committees represented went from 271 in 1924, to 541 in March 1926. Within the limits of such figures - the fact that a union branch was represented did not akways reflect the views of its membership - the influence of the National Minority Movement in the union structures more or less doubled in that period. But it still remained small and mostly concentrated in a few industries.
Organising the unemployed
How successful the CP's policy was in developing and entrenching its militants in the workplaces is difficult to say. By 1925, it was claimed that 300 factory cells were in existence. Many probably did not have the same level of activity as that described by Harry Wicks. In fact quite a few must have been reduced to one isolated member given that only 17% of the membership, or 390 members, were working in industry or mining at this point.
Part of the limited success of the CP in developing its workplace roots was probably due to the low morale that prevailed in many sections of the working class. But the main reason was probably the fact that a majority of its membership was unemployed, as a result of the recession and the black-listing of activists. This led the party to launch what was probably its most successful, although still modest attempt at organising workers - the National Unemployed Workers' Movement which was set up in April 1921 by an unemployed toolmaker and lifelong CP activist, Wal Hannington.
The NUWM initially brought together the previously scattered unemployed ex-servicemen's committees and launched a campaign for «work or full maintenance at trade union rates» with the aim of unionising the unemployed and gaining recognition from the TUC - something that the union leaders always resisted fiercely. By 1921 there were over 2m unemployed and nearly 2m workers on short-time work. To make matters worse, in March 1921, the government had halved the postwar benefit to the unemployed. For all its shortcomings, the NUWM waged a tremendously energetic campaign which brought dignity into the fight of the unemployed, arguing for militant direct action rather than appeals for charity. Demonstrations, hunger marches, raids on the offices of the council guardians who were responsible for providing relief, strike solidarity and even raids on factories against overtime working and piece rates were organised. As Wal Hannington recalls of a factory raid against the piece rate:
« The raiding party walked into the factory by the main gate, which they then closed and locked behind them. Two men went to the telephones and the machines were stopped. While one of the raiders was addressing the employees, a deputation met the management who denied that the employees wanted time work. (...) the question was put to the employees who with one voice shouted for time work. The manager appeared to be much surprised.» The raiders then proceeded to get the manager to agree to place all workers onto time work for a trial period of one month and even pay them their back-pay - which gives some indication of what their actions could achieve, albeit on a limited scale.
Success in linking up and uniting the struggle of the employed and unemployed would have been a decisive achievement for the NUWM, and therefore for the Communist Party. This did not happen, however, although some steps in that direction were made in certain instances, like during the engineers lockout in 1922, and the Dockers' strike of 1923/4, when unemployed workers joined strikers in their fights. While the NUWM proved too weak to influence events, certain concessions were won through these struggles.
Organising the unemployed was a difficult task, if only due to the volatility of unemployment. New activists did their best to find a job and were soon lost for the NUWM, although some did join the CP. Without the dedication of the unemployed CP activists themselves, the movement would have been short-lived.
The stalinist turn reaches britain
By 1924, a deep political fight was underway in the USSR. In his bid for Lenin's succession, Stalin had embarked on a deadly fight against Trotsky and the Bolshevik militants around him who represented and stood by the tradition and ideas of the revolution. In this confrontation Stalin had sought the support of the emerging bureaucracy - still no more than small-time cogs in the state machinery - by expressing their aspirations for privileges and political stabilisation. Stalin's growing strength was soon felt in the Communist International, through a political shift at first, and later through major U-turns.
This initial shift eventually led to a major revision of the Bolsheviks' ideas, with the promotion of Stalin's so-called theory of "socialism in one country" which was just another way of saying that the world revolution was no longer necessary for the development of socialism in Russia.
Initially however, the political shift in the International consisted in turning upside down the policies adopted over the previous period to face the retreat of the revolutionary wave. Thus Lenin's "united front" policy, originally aimed at winning over to communism the masses still influenced by reformist organisations, was turned into a policy of systematic conciliation and wooing of reformist leaders, the "united front from above" as it was called by Stalin's opponents.
In Britain this shift only reinforced a tendency among the CP leadership to seek recognition from the reformist leaders - a tendency which had come under criticism from the Communist International before. Thus, under Harry Pollitt, the National Minority Movement orientated itself towards the TUC leadership. And in May 1925, an Anglo-Russian council was set up by Stalin as a joint body between the Russian unions and the British TUC. It soon became a vehicle for his policy of wooing reformist leaders in Europe in the hope of gaining some form of recognition for the USSR. In the eyes of many British workers, this amounted to throwing the weight and prestige of the Russian Revolution behind the TUC leadership. And this move only encouraged the British CP leaders in their indulgent attitude towards the reformist leaders.
In the twelve months up to the General Strike, in May 1926, class relations became increasingly tense. The prospect of a general strike came to be considered as necessary and inevitable by a large section of the working class. The main issue for communists should have been that of the aims and leadership of that strike. But all along, the policy of the CP contributed to entrenching the illusion that, regardless of their shortcomings, the TUC General Council, would somehow be forced to lead the strike in accordance with the interests of the working class. Only a few days before the strike, on 30 April, JT Murphy argued in the CP's paper, Workers' Weekly that «our party does not hold the leading positions in the trade unions. It can only advise and place its press and its forces at the service of the workers - led by others (..) To entertain any exaggerated views as to the revolutionary possibilities of this crisis and visions of new leadership arising spontaneously in the struggle is fantastic.» This amounted to saying that not much could be expected from the strike or achieved through it. Given that the most radical formulation of the CP policies was expressed by the slogan «all power to the General Council», Murphy's statement effectively put the Communist Party and the working class as a whole in the tow of the reformist leaders in advance of the events. When, on the contrary, the task of the Communist Party should have been, at least, to prepare itself and the working class, morally and politically, for a likely betrayal by the TUC leadership.
The General Strike betrayed
When the General Strike started on the 3rd of May 1926, the offices of the CP and Minority Movement were immediately raided and during the nine days of the strike, 1,000 communist party members were taken into custody. The CP, whose entire Executive Committee was already in jail, immediately set up an emergency leadership which had to operate underground. It was, however, cut off from the district organisations, although this leadership did manage to produce a Workers Bulletin in London throughout the strike.
The TUC General Council had left nothing to chance. The situation described by Harry Wicks in Battersea, where the trades council had taken the role of "Council of Action" was quite representative: «As if all the confusion were not enough, each union took charge of its own members, information and instructions were relayed from union head offices down to branches. So branch meetings became for most members a vital source of news, even more than usual. Worse still, some branches scented dangerous novelty in any Council of Action, even of the Battersea type. For example my own NUR branch viewed affiliation to such a body as against union regulations and so stayed aloof from it.»
However Councils of Action and strike committees sprang up all over the country. This was a tradition going back to the strike wave following the war. On 21 March, a last conference of the Minority Movement had recommended the setting up of Councils of Action to which, in addition to representatives from the trades councils, «should be brought representatives of every section of the movement at present outside it: trade union branches not affiliated, co-operative societies, the organised unemployed and Communist Party locals.» And in fact communist activists were often instrumental in setting up these councils. Several hundred such councils came to existence against TUC policy.
The Councils of Action and communist activists often played a significant role in starting the strike in a particular area and overcoming the lack of response from local union officials and also the fact that unionisation levels were uneven. Harry Wicks recalls: «The first thing we (the Young Communist League) and the NUWM had decided to do was to start a march around the factories and bring people out on strike. The first factory we came to was Morgan Crucibles. This was partially organised and came out at once (..) And then along Lombard Road there was Carson's Paint factory. They were not unionised. But as soon as we approached along the road we could see them, too, coming out, and putting their coats on to join us. And similar things happened as the march was getting bigger and bigger. People were obviously wanting or expecting to come out.»
The level of local organisation in many cases anticipated a strike which would be prolonged and committees were set up to take care of food, transport, information, defence, entertainments and propaganda. One such area where this was successful was Newcastle, where Robin Page Arnot, a well-known communist, led a Council of Action which managed to gain control of food supplies from the docks. At Methil, the strike centre of the East Fife coalfields, a defence corps of 150 men was formed and swelled to 700 when clashes between the police and pickets took place. In this area the Communist Party and Minority Movement had however been preparing the ground for this since the previous July.
Then suddenly came the call to end the strike, issued by the TUC General Council. The prognosis published in the Workers' Weekly on 30 April, which said that «the TUC simply would not dare do this» was proved wrong. And this took the CP membership unawares and more importantly unprepared. Not that most workers were keen to go back to work, far from it. From St Pancras in London, for instance, where a strike bulletin was issued daily throughout the strike, the following report was typical of the response to the calling off of the strike : «Position on May 12: no weakening; great disappointment at end of strike and method of ending it, which caused great difficulties, especially among railwaymen.» But what were they to do? The manifesto issued by the CP on the «political meaning of the General Strike» on the third day of the strike had said that the most important demands were those of the miners - «nationalisation without compensation» - the resignation of the Tory government, and the election of a Labour government «if victory is to be clinched». There had been no sign of any independent communist perspective. No real attempt had been made to co-ordinate the Councils of Action, even on a local basis, in order to establish, in an embyonic form at least, the beginning of an alternative leadership. Communist Party activists themselves, although at the forefront of the strike at all times, had never been identified with a policy which was different to that of the TUC.
True, the immediate result of the General Strike was a boom in CP membership - from 6,000 in April 1926 to 10,730 in October. But these gains had probably less to do with the policy of the CP than with the efforts and dedication of its activists on the ground during the strike itself and during the subsequent miners lock-out which lasted until the end of the year. But these gains were nothing compared to what the working class had lost through being defeated without having had the chance of a real fight.
The fight against the depression
The defeat of the General Strike opened a period of outright reaction. Tens of thousands of workers were victimised as a result of the strike and among them, of course, many communist activists. Between December 1926 and December 1927, the CP all but lost the members recruited in the aftermath of the strike and membership fell back to 7,400 (a drop of one third). Attacks against communists in the trade unions and Labour Party were stepped up while a red-baiting climate was reinforced when the British government ended diplomatic relations with the USSR. One of the larger unions, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers banned anyone with CP or Minority Movement membership or affiliation from holding any office in the union. They suspended a number of officials as well as five branches. The TUC followed, with a withdrawal of recognition from any trades council affiliated to the Minority Movement. They then proceeded to dissolve their side of the Anglo-Russian Trade union committee. Meanwhile, in the Labour Party 27 branches were disaffiliated for showing too much sympathy for the CP's policies.
While the union leadership went along slavishly with the anti-union provisions passed in April of 1927, the CP focused its efforts once more in the industrial field. Disputes sprang up during 1927/8 in the textile industry. The CP was not well implanted in this industry, but when the employers tried to cut wages they immediately reacted with great energy, holding four or five mill-gate meetings a day, distributing twenty different factory papers and agitating for rank-and-file representation on strike committees and a national wage agreement. Their efforts met with some success and the employers backed down, albeit temporarily. Meanwhile, in 1928, a wage cut of 2.5% in the railways led to the development of Minority Movement groups, around newsheets such as the King's Cross Star, the Hornsey Star and the LMS Rebel. And in January 1929, twelve NUR branches and 16 Minority Movement groups were represented at the launching of the Railwaymen's Minority Movement.
Revolution round the corner?
The efforts of the CP activists were to be mostly wasted, however, due to a sharp political turn by the Communist International which was triggered by the Russian leadership in 1928. In the Soviet Union, Stalin was coming up against a growing mobilisation of the very same enriched farmers and entrepreneurs whose support he had used against Trotsky since 1924. Faced with a threat of bourgeois restoration, the bureaucracy reacted with a sharp turn to the left.
In the Communist International, this shift was reflected by the adoption of the "third period" course - which assumed that imperialism had reached its last stage and the proletarian revolution was now on the agenda. All of a sudden the left reformists who had been systematically wooed in the previous period became the target of hysterical attacks and were branded "social fascists" - reformism came to be considered as even worse than fascism, due to the illusions it was maintaining in the working class.
In Britain, this turn created a storm in the CP leadership, although nothing as dramatic as in the mass Communist Parties in Europe. A few leading figures who had been brought to the fore after the 1924 turn were pushed onto the sidelines while others were brought back into leading positions. The CP entered the 1929 election with their «class against class» programme and received only one tenth of the Labour vote in the 25 constituencies they contested. Though their policy had proved disastrous - the working class had not swung to the left of the Labour Party, as had been predicted - the next Comintern plenum blamed this disaster on remaining right-wing deviations displayed by "elements" within the British leadership!
Another consequence of this turn had to do with the CP's intervention in the unions. Setting up so-called "red unions" was now advocated by the Third International. Unlike in France for instance, the British Communist Party was in no position to engineer a significant split in the unions. In some cases it was the union apparatus which did it for them by expelling whole branches. Only in two instances was the CP able to implement the Internationals policy on any scale.
In London, the United Clothing Workers Union (UCWTU) arose out of the refusal of the Tailor and Garment Workers' Union leadership to recognise a strike to maintain a 100% union shop at Rego Clothiers in Edmonton. One of the two union organisers behind this strike was Sam Elsbury, the Communist London organiser and the strike itself was widely supported. When Elsbury was disciplined by the union executive, the CP jumped on the opportunity to form a breakaway union. However outside of London the new union was successful in setting up branches only in Leeds and Glasgow and overall the majority of workers stayed in the official union.
The other case, that of the United Mineworkers of Scotland was slightly different. The miners' official union operated as a federation of local and regional unions, leaving localites with a certain amount of autonomy. Communists in the Minority Movement had for some time dominated the Fife union and operated a democratic policy of election of officers unlike elswhere in Scotland where officials were appointed. When CP militants got elected to most of the positions in Lanarkshire as well, the right-wing dominated Scottish executive moved against the two areas. A dispute involving the courts and the executive of the Miners' Federation, led to a bitter conflict and what seemed to be an irreversible situation. This resulted in the launching of a new Scottish union under the leadership of communists in April 1929, with a membership of 15,000 mainly from Fife and Lanarkshire, against the 20,000 in the old official Scottish Miners' Union and 55,000 miners who were not unionised at all. This union carried on for the next six years and, at least in Fife, maintained enough credit amongst the population to allow Willie Gallacher to become an MP for Fife in the 1935 election.
Meanwhile, CP activists continued to intervene in the class struggle. In two major disputes for instance, in the London buses and the cotton industry around Manchester, their determination resulted in the strikes being run by rank-and-file strike committees which forced the official unions to support them - which may not have been the party's official policy but contributed to total or partial victories in both cases.
In summing up the results of the "left turn", one could say that the damage was limited to some extent by the energetic activity of the CP militants on the ground. But membership figures nonetheless suffered enormously, since by the end of 1929, the CP was down to 3,200 members, one third of its 1927 figure!
After the crash
The onset of the depression following the 1929 Wall Street crash had severe repercussions once more for many of the CP's working class activists who lost their jobs, both through unemployment and through victimisation. While the CP's activities in industry were curtailed somewhat, this gave them the militant resources to boost the profile of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Wal Hannington again rolled up his sleeves and enthusiastically got stuck in, and soon demonstrations, occupations and hunger marches were being organised up and down the country against the threatened cuts in benefits. And the NUWM membership expanded from 20,000 to 37,000 in the course of 1931, while unemployment reached 3m.
Under the Labour government the unemployed were treated no better, if they were not in fact treated far worse than they had been under the Tories in the twenties. The police were used to beat up demonstrators and the courts imprisoned thousands. As Hannington recalls of 1931: «In Manchester 80,000 unemployed did battle with the police on 7th October, when they attempted to march to the town hall. It was one of the fiercest fights that had ever been seen in Lancashire. Fire hoses poured tons of water into the crowd in an effort to disperse them. Mounted police repeatedly charged with their sword batons, clubbing down old and young.»
With the advent of MacDonald's National Government, the struggle of the unemployed became even more intense, with huge riots in Birkenhead, Liverpool. In Belfast protestant and catholic united to fight the police and when a demonstrator was shot, barricades were set up and the military was called in. But as a result of these struggles the government was forced to grant considerable concessions - for instance, the benefit for a man, wife and child was doubled.
Shortly after this Hannington himself was arrested. As he said: «This made my fifth term of imprisonment in ten years for my working class activities.» He was sentenced to two years. Tom Mann, then treasurer of the NUWM and 72 years old, was imprisoned along with the secretary of the movement for two months, though there were no criminal charges brought against them. In 1935, Hannington wrote of the gains for the CP in this work amongst the unemployed that «millions of workers have passed through membership of the National Workers' Unemployed Movement, but at no time has the standing membership approached even ten per cent of the vast mass of the unemployed. It is true that its influence extends far beyond its actual membership, as has been shown repeatedly in the struggles which the movement has conducted. There have been big achievements as a result of the work of the NUWM, but how much more could have been achieved if the vast masses of the unemployed had been united in constant organisation and action!»
Towards the end of the so-called "third-period" era, by 1932, the membership had risen again slightly to 6,000. But 60% of party members were unemployed. There were only 200 miners left in the party, 150 textile workers, and 550 in total were still organised in the party's 82 factory cells.
The turn to respectability
Another sharp turn was in the making in the International, however. The bureaucratic pendulum was swinging back to the right again. By 1933, Hitler had risen to power in Germany. The most powerful Communist Party outside the Soviet Union was crushed, its militants killed, tortured and jailed in the Nazi's concentration camps. Hitler's victory meant a permanent deadly threat for the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy in Moscow knew this, but they were even more frightened of a possible resurgence of the proletarian revolution in Europe. So the wooing of reformist leaders across the world was resumed, like in the mid-twenties, only with more servility. By 1935, the emphasis was put on the "popular front". Communist parties were instructed to enter into electoral alliances with whatever forces were willing - be it the devil or his mother. The aim became to build an "anti-fascist" block between the USSR and Western bourgeois democracies. What this meant was not just putting the CPs in the tow of the reformist leaders but actually lining them up directly behind their own bourgeoisies.
The Spanish civil war proved how far Stalin was prepared to go down this road. When the Spanish proletariat arose against General Franco's military coup, the Communist International threw its weight behind an attempt to help the Republican wing of the Spanish bourgeoisie to rebuild its own state machinery against the emerging proletarian revolution. Nothing stopped Stalin in his drive to please the world bourgeoisie, neither the opposition of a section of the Spanish left whose leaders were executed by Stalin's thugs, nor the uprising of the Barcelona working class which was drowned in blood. The International Brigades which were staffed mostly by communist party members and supporters from all over the world, were used as an instrument of this policy. Among the tens of thousand of enthusiastic fighters in these Brigades, several thousands died including 500 British volunteers of whom half were communist activists - but they died for nothing, having been the tool of a policy which was stabbing the Spanish working class in the back and which ultimately gave the victory to Franco.
The "anti-fascist front"
In Britain, it took some time before this turn was fully implemented. But the CP leadership swallowed everything, with only some re-shuffling among the main figures. By 1935, the CP was already demontrating (unilaterally) its goodwill to the Labour leadership by withdrawing all but two of its candidates from standing in the General Election. Ironically this did not prevent an ungrateful Labour leadership from throwing out, once again, the CP's application for affiliation.
By then the CP's priority had switched from industrial intervention to building an "anti-fascist front". Consistently with the International's policy of seeking respectable allies, this front was not intended to be a fighting organisation but rather to attract well-known personalities and politicians from the whole political spectrum. And this meant banning any reference to class politics while, of course, using and abusing the prestige of the Soviet Union and its revolutionary past.
Joe Jacobs, a young Jewish worker who was recruited to the Stepney Communist Party, recalls what the mood was like: «This was the time the Left Book Club was getting off the ground. They had recruited sixteen thousand members after only a few weeks since opening, with a proposal to produce a book a month for only half-a-crown. There was tremendous interest in left-wing politics in general and anti-fascism in particular. The growth of the popular Front in Spain and France on the one hand and the growth of fascism in Germany and Italy on the other, was forcing more people, including intellectuals and artists of all kinds, along with workers, to take up firm positions on one side or another.»
Indeed many young intellectuals came to the Party in these days including literary figures like Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis and also others like David Guest, a young Cambridge mathematician. Young middle-class students were recruited by the CP including in the most select strongholds of the bourgeoisie - Oxford and Cambridge. By 1938, for instance, the communist student club at Cambridge had a thousand members.
In those days, the CP leadership also had some very strange bedfellows. For instance, liberal Labourites such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb were so impressed by the contrast between the depression in the West and the apparent dynamic and orderly development in the USSR that their book «Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?» which first appeared in 1935, was reprinted in 1937 without the question mark at the end of its title - but maybe the Moscow trials had convinced them that, after all, Stalin was really serious about getting rid of all revolutionary opponents! Another one was the Duchess of Atholl, a landlord and Conservative MP for Perth, who was given a high profile at the conference for "Peace and Frienship with the Soviet Union" in 1937 and subsequently, having fallen out with her party, won the support of the CP in a by-election.
Probably, the most celebrated aspect of the CP's activity in that period is the part it played in the fight against Britain's home-grown aspiring fascist, Oswald Mosley. This, however, is partly a myth, particularly with regard to the famous "Battle of Cable Street". By 1936, Mosley, a former Labour Cabinet minister who had set up the British Union of Fascists, was meeting with some success thanks to the generous donations of a number of very wealthy businessmen. His thugs were mostly into uniformed parades, but this was enough to trigger an angry and confrontational opposition among a whole section of the working class and youth, particularly in the large Jewish community in London's East End.
Mosley had announced a march into the East End on 4 October 1936, generating widespread anger. A strong response was predictable from local people. Yet as Joe Jacobs recalls, the CP was not even intending to be there. Instead the Daily Worker had called an anti-fascist march from Embankment to Trafalgar Square over Spain. In the end, however, the CP caught the mood and cancelled its march. And indeed it was a huge mobilisation. Says Jacobs: «By mid-morning the crowds coming to Aldgate were already so big that Gardiners Corner (..) was blocked and traffic was coming to a standstill. (..) Young people were perched on all the lamposts and at any other vantage point, displaying posters and directing the crowd towards the weak spots in the front with the police. The crowds were roaring 'They shall not pass!'» And as we know Mosley's thugs did not pass. A huge fight ensued with the police who were there only there to provide protection for the Blackshirts and the police had to give in.
Of course, later the CP took credit for this "Battle of Cable Street" and it went down as the decisive event in turning the tide against "British fascism". But as Jacobs contends, this was hardly the case: «October the 4th was not just the result of a few days effort on the part of all who participated. The defeat of Mosley started way back when he failed to gain a foothold in Shadwell and Wapping, where lived the dockers of Irish descent with a strong Catholic background and a long history of working class struggle behind them. The Jews of East London could not, in my view, have held Mosley back without support from this area to the south of the Jewish areas, which would have found them completely surrounded on October 4th if Mosley had made the headway there that he had made in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Limehouse.» Besides, this "battle" was in fact the starting point of a wave of attacks by the Blackshirts against the local Jewish population for which little preparation, if any, had been made. The demoralising effect of these attacks seems to have been "forgotten" by the official historians of this period!
Gaining weight in the class struggle
On the industrial front, however, the niceties of the "popular front" policies and the twist and turns of the International made little sense. Rank-and-file activists had their own way of understanding and implementing the official policy. Overall they responded to the demands of the situation by joining ranks with those workers who were looking for a fightback.
Since 1931, CP activists had launched a number of rank-and-file groupings within various unions: the Builders' Forward Movement which spanned across the building trade; the Members' Rights Movement in the engineering union, which soon published a regular journal called "The Monkey Wrench"; a Reorganisation Committee in the boilermakers' union; the Railwaymen's Vigilance Movement, which also had its own paper, just as the London Busmen's Rank and File Movement did; and there were many others. These groupings brought together ordinary members, stewards and some officials on the basis of a simple programme of basic demands and a common solid suspicion of the leadership's doings.
It was probably these successful moves which prompted the TUC General Council to step up their anti-communist policy in 1934 with a "Black Circular" which banned CP members from trades councils and invited affiliated unions to bar them from all positions - although this had little effect in most unions.
Despite this, the following year, the CP - who had already disbanded the Minority Movement - decided to disband their breakaway unions in Scotland and London. Again, as Joe Jacobs, who worked in the garment trade, recalls: «Our united front tactics were having some partial success locally. Our tactical position had shifted in regard to the situation in the clothing industry. All our CP members and supporters were urged to join either the LTU (London Tailors Union) or the NUTGW (National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers). The UCWU was no more. It went, along with many other unions which had been formed out of the Minority Movement (..). There was one exception, in East London, which did not liquidate itself. The Stevedores and Dockers Union, the "Blue Union" as it was called, because of the colour of the membership card. (..) We set about working in the "reformist" unions with a will. Our young members lost no time in forming a sports and social club in the local branch of the NUTGW.»
Organising went on following more or less the pattern initiated earlier. But as the level of disputes was taking off again, CP activists began to play an increasingly prominent role in strikes. In 1935, they were in the leadership of a movement against company unionism in the South Wales mines culminating in a series of stay-down strikes which forced the coal owners to give in; later on they led a similar dispute, this time in the Nottinghamshire pits, in which the strike leader, a well-known communist was sentenced to two years jail. Meanwhile the CP started gaining influence in the aircraft industry with the launching of the Aircraft Shop Stewards' National Council, with its monthly "The New Propeller", which organised a number of successful strikes. In the London buses, the CP rank-an-file movement which had already led unofficial strikes in 1932 and 33, launched another strike in 1937. This time, however, the T&G leader Bevin succeeded in breaking the strike and the three communist strike leaders were expelled from the union, while the CP leadership seemed to be sitting back - probably due to their unwillingness to upset their improving relations with the TUC. By then, the emphasis was increasingly on finding a status quo with the union leadership in order to be accepted into leading positions.
The CP had also gained weight on other fronts. The late 30s, for instance, saw a series of large-scale rent strikes in East London and Birmingham in particular, led by tenants' defence leagues organised by communist activists. Also there had been, again, the unemployed struggle, with the 300,000 strong demonstration organised by the South Wales Miners' Federation in the valleys and the many others organised by the NUWM, which were probably decisive in forcing Baldwin to cancel the benefit cuts he had planned in 1935.
By the end of this period the party's membership had increased to 12,750 in 1937 and 18,000 by 1939. But the composition of the party had begun to change somewhat. Almost half the membership was by then in London. The party had made many new recruits in the working class, but even more in the intellectual and student milieu. It was still predominantly a working class party but the "popular front" generation was already more numerous than the hard core of rank-and-file activists who had stuck to their guns through the repression and tense class struggle of the late twenties and early thirties. And this imbalance was going to become even more serious during World War II.
WWII: the CP behind British imperialism
The twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy from 1939 onwards led to much confusion even amongst the leadership of the British CP, who had so far proved themselves so adroit at twisting and turning at the behest of Stalin. But they led to even more disorientation among the membership.
In August 1939 the Russo-German non-aggression pact was signed and followed by the joint invasion of Poland by Hitler's and Stalin's armies. All of a sudden fascism was no longer the main enemy and the war declared by Britain and France against Germany was branded by the CP - although after some hesitation - an imperialist war. The CP began to lose some of its support. Their meetings were broken up and militants were arrested for handing out anti-war literature. Their newspaper was banned eventually in January 1941. Although, at the same time, the CP-sponsored "Peoples' Convention" against the war met with an echo amongst many who remembered the carnage of WW1, as well as amongst youth. And its campaign around the organisation of better provisions against air raids in London was a success.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union however, in June 1941, resulted in a new turn. On the 8th of July, Pollitt sent out a private letter to party members saying that «In supporting the Churchill government we do it wholeheartedly and without any reservations». The official policy became in favour of «a national front against Hitler» spanning from the Communist Party to patriotic Tories. Thus in the 1942 Cardiff-East by-election, the CP supported the Tory candidate Sir James Crigg against Fenner Brockway, the ILP leader, who was considered a pacifist.
The British CP began a campaign too, for a «Second Front in the West» to relieve the pressure on the Red Army. But the Red Army fought so well - and without any help from the so-called allies, that popular enthusiasm for Russia grew to unprecedented heights. Membership of the Communist Party had been about 12,000 in June 1941. By the end of 1941, the party membership was 22,700 - an all-time record. In the first three months of 1942, 25,194 additional recruits were made largely amongst manual workers in the large war factories, particularly in the Midlands. And by the end of the year, the membership figure reached 56,000.
Many of the new members did not stay long in the party, however. By early 1944, the membership had already fallen to 38,661. This was possibly because, by then, the Second Front had eventually opened and the news was no longer filled with reports on the progress of the Russian army. But there was also another reason related to the CP's unqualified support for the war in general, and for the war effort in industry in particular. The realities of the war were beginning to hit home as casualties of British soldiers mounted. The screw was being turned in production and workers were getting fed up with the intensity and regimentation of work, while they barely scraped a living wage out of it. And the CP which played a prominent role in all this, was bound to get part of the blame.
Against workers' demands
As early as October 1941, a CP-sponsored Shop stewards Conference had applauded a contributor arguing that «If a man doesn't pull his weight in war production then, whether he is a labourer or an engineer, he should be put in the army.» It had subsequently endorsed a proposal to set up Joint Production Committees between management and shop stewards to boost productivity - in fact the CP had borrowed this suggestion from one made earlier by the right-wing T&G leader, Bevin. A special issue of the CP's Labour Monthly in December 1941 included a circular from the Employers' Federation approving the CP's initiative together with many examples of the "achievements" reported by Production Committees. Thus in an aircraft factory in the South-East of England: «A minimum of three nights per week overtime and Saturday afternoon has been agreed on by several departments. Disciplinary action to be taken against any worker if men in department ask for any action. One job which originally took 109 hours to do is now done in 47 hours by the same labour.» Another report from West London complained however that «the main obstacle unfortunately lies on our side, due to apathy and anarchistic attitude of a number of employees.»
The CP was therefore out to join forces with factory managers to squeeze as much labour and productivity as they could out of the workforce. This was not always successful. For instance, in a case where the CP failed to counter the efforts of a small Trotskyist group, the Workers' International League, which was trying to organise resistance against war production at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham. Here an attempt by the Ministry of Labour to transfer some of the men to a private factory at a lower rate of pay was met with a two-day, stay-in strike which forced the Ministry to cave in. In another case, CP officials in the mining union failed to prevent three Yorkshire pits from going on strike against wage-cutting, despite a virulent campaign to get a banning order against the WIL's newspaper.
There were of course many instances of strike-breaking by the CP militants although little mention of this is made in official labour histories or in the CP's own history books. The CP leadership actually boasted of it in those days, as when Pollitt declared at one of the party's conferences: «I salute our comrade, a docker from Hull, who was on a job unloading a ship with a cargo urgently wanted... When the rest of the dockers struck work, he fought against it because he believed that the course of action he recommended would get what was wanted without a strike. What courage, what a sacred spirit of real class consciousness, to walk on the ship's gangway and resume his job...»
One example will show how far down the road of strike-breaking the CP was prepared to go. One of the largest strikes of the war, at Vickers Armstrong Shipbuilding in Barrow, in September 1943, involved 7,000 workers and was led by the factory AEU committee advised by Roy Tearse, a leading member of the WIL. The AEU immediately suspended its Barrow district committee, and then all the AEU structures which supported it. Leading CP members were dispatched to Barrow to spread slanders against the leaders of the strike. Then, as the factory CP members were unwilling to lend their hands to damaging the strike, the YCL was asked to instruct its members among the apprentices to scab which it did, although not without hesitation. The result of all this was the collective resignation from the CP of most members in Barrow. And after an 18-day solid strike the Barrow workers won most of their demands.
The postwar decline
During the war most revolutionaries had hoped that the postwar period would bring about an upsurge similar to that following World War I. This did not happen. Two figures speak for themselves: the number of working days lost through strikes in Britain had been 178 million during the years 1918 to 1923; it was only nine million for 1945 to 1950.
Of course, the world situation as a whole was different. In 1917, the Russian revolution had opened new prospects and hopes in front of the world working class. This time round the Soviet Union, still the symbol of socialist change for millions of workers across the world, had entered an alliance with imperialism. In 1943, Stalin had obliged his new allies by disbanding the Third International with the hypocritical pretext that it «has more and more become outgrown by the movement's development (..) and has even become a hindrance to the further strengthening of the national working-class parties.» Throughout Central Europe, the Red Army was busy protecting the remnants of the old reactionary regimes against the anger of the masses. In France and Italy, the Communist Parties were using their prestige and influence in the working class to bring back into government disconsidered bourgeois politicians and parties alongside CP ministers.
In Britain, the Communist Party was sticking to its wartime policies, opposing strikes and advocating a national coalition extended to the CP itself in order to implement Churchill's call to "win the peace" and rebuild the economy of the bosses. In a pamphlet published in 1945, a CP-sponsored shop steward National Council bragged that «the shop stewards, the NCOs of the factory front, have proved their worth» to support a claim for more shop steward involvement in helping the bosses to organise production. And, of course, these were policies which both the CP and the Labour left did their utmost to present as "workers' control"! The fact that all working class organisations were lining up behind the government and the bosses to keep productivity up undoubtedly undermined workers' confidence in their strength despite widespread discontent.
A different organisation
With membership figures at 45,000 in 1945 and 42,000 in 1946, the Communist Party was still a much more powerful organisation than it had ever been before the war. It had two MPs (Gallacher for Fife and Phil Piratin for Mile End) as well as over two hundred local councillors, more than ever before. And yet, despite this new strength, the CP seemed to have less weight on events than in the dark days of the depression when its membership had been ten times smaller. This was partly due to the CP's championing of social peace. But there were deeper reasons related to the political choices made by the CP leadership over the previous decade and the changes which had taken place as a result, in the organisation.
Back in 1942 when new members were flocking into the party out of enthusiasm over the victory of Stalingrad, one organiser had warned that «we cannot expect and must not demand of the average new member the same standard of activity as we get from the older comrades (..) There should be no question of striking out any member who pays his dues and supports the policy of the party, on the grounds that he does not yet do more, or has failed to attend meetings. Under the present conditions this is all that should be regarded as the obligatory minimum required of all members.» Then the 1943 party conference had taken this new orientation further by shifting the party structure to residential branches at the expense of the old factory cells. And by 1945, the party was no longer the militant workplace-based organisation made of tested and committed activists it had been in the 20s. If anything it was getting closer and closer to the traditional reformist electoral model established by the Labour Party.
To be fair, there was still a militant rank-and-file core among the CP membership, who were totally dedicated to their class, to their ideas and to their party. But drowned as they were in a large passive majority of paper members, they were no longer able to pull the rest of the membership into action. Besides the quality of these core activists had changed too.
The first change had resulted from the "popular front" turn which brought into the party a generation of activists around the defence of "democracy" against fascism. These activists were no less generously dedicated, but they were no longer motivated by a determination to see the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, they were not starving for a revolutionary situation like the previous generations of recruits. Nor did this new generation have the experience acquired by the previous ones in the tense conditions of the class struggle in the 20s and early 30s. And given the Communist Party leadership's drive for respectability, no serious attempt was made to change the outlook of this new generation.
This trend was reinforced with the subsequent generation of wartime recruits. By joining the CP these new members were going along with the stream, not against it. They were joining on the basis of a mixture of British and Soviet patriotism, not on the basis of internationalism. Working class recruits were selected by their willingness to participate in the war effort, alongside the capitalists and the union leadership, not by their determination to fight the bosses and the union bureaucrats. The thousands of low-level union officials and shop stewards who joined may have been admirers of what they saw as socialism in the Soviet Union, but they joined primarily because they felt that the CP was more effective in implementing the policy advocated by the union apparatuses - nothing to do, even remotely, with the defiance against the bourgeoisie and the determination to follow the example of the Russian revolution which prompted the Clydeside shop stewards to join the new Communist Party in the early 20s.
In fact the relationship between the CP and the rest of society had changed significantly. Already, by 1939, in many layers of the middle-class being a Communist was considered an acceptable eccentricity, if not a fashionable one. Famous names in arts, literature, science, etc.. were no longer afraid of being associated with the CP. Then, during the war, the policy of the CP allowed it to break out from its ghetto and create various links with the Establishment. Leading CP figures brushed shoulders with politicians, top civil servants and employer representatives in high-powered meetings and committees set up to administrate the war production machinery. In other words the CP leadership got a taste of what it was like to be admitted to the corridors of power and they certainly did not dislike it.
More importantly, CPers whose policies were no longer at odds with the union bureaucracy, started to make it to top level positions in the unions. In 1942, for instance, Wal Hannington was elected national organiser of the AEU while another CPer got onto the union's national executive. In the T&G, Bert Papworth and Bill Jones, the rank-and-file leaders of the London bus workers who had been expelled from the union after the 1937 strike, were reinstated and elected to the union's national executive. In other unions like the boilermakers, mining and firemens' unions, CPers were in leadership positions too. Then, in 1943, Papworth was elected to the TUC General Council while that year's TUC conference passed a resolution moved by the leadership which abolished the "Black Circular" - the CP had finally won TUC recognition! And once the war was over the presence of CPers in leading union bodies increased even more dramatically. This rising position of the CP in the union apparatus generated pressures on the communist union officials and on the party as a whole to make allowances to the bureaucracy in order to retain the positions gained.
None of these changes in the CP, however, happened by chance. They reflected on the one hand the political choice made by Stalin to co-operate with the bourgeois democratic states in order to consolidate the position of the Soviet bureaucracy worldwide and, on the other hand, the aspiration of a section at least of the CP apparatus to gain admittance to the fold of the British political system. In 1951, the adoption, without much opposition from the membership, of the CPs new programme - "The British Road to Socialism" - which abandoned the revolutionary road for electoralism, formalised and concluded the evolution started in the party in 1935.
A slow downfall
There is no space here to cover in any detail the subsequent thirty years of existence of the British Communist Party until it finally broke into pieces in the mid-80s. Paradoxically this decline was a direct consequence of the CP's relative wartime success, whereas the fact that it lasted so long was primarily due to what remained of the CP's historical roots.
Unlike the mass Communist Parties in other European countries, the British party never achieved enough influence on the working class for the capitalists to need its services and therefore never made it to government. The French Communist Party, for instance, remained in control of the country's largest trade union confederation from 1945 onwards. Regardless of the ups and downs of its membership during the Cold War, the French CP was always regarded by workers as the main working class party by far, including in electoral terms, whether they supported it or not, because of its sheer weight and influence, and the number of its activitists on the ground.
But not in Britain where, despite its efforts after the war, the CP never managed to win a significant share of the votes and was always considered as marginal by most workers. The CP's influence remained dependent on the one hand on the goodwill of the union bureaucracy towards CP officials and on the other on the ability of its activists to have a visible and successful intervention during events - mainly in the class struggle, once the CP had dropped its opposition to industrial action following the beginning of the Cold War.
As a militant party based on a systematic radical intervention in the class struggle, there was a vacuum to fill in Britain, which the CP filled before the war with a limited but not insignificant success. But after the war, its aspiration to become - with Moscow's encouragements - a "normal" reformist party, led the CP to try and fit itself in where there was no space for it, as the Labour Party occupied all the space available. This led many CP union officials and a number of its leading figures outside the unions, to choose the comfort of the Labour Party or union apparatuses rather than the uncertain future offered by the party.
During these thirty years, the CP experienced a number of crises. Firstly the consequences of the Cold War, then the crushing of the Workers' Councils in Budapest in 1956, after Khruschev's exposure of the evils of Stalinism. Finally there was the reaction to Moscow's intervention against the "Prague Spring" in 1968. What was significant about all these crises was that with very few exceptions, those who chose to make a clear break from the CP drifted almost immediately to the right. The most spectacular examples were those of the miners' leader Alex Moffat and the Electricians' leaders Frank Chapple and Les Cannon. There were scores of similar cases where leading communist union officials dropped out of the CP only to take almost immediately top union positions, this time as right-wingers and anti-communists, not to mention the case of Will Paynter, a member of the CP's Central Committee for 20 years, who resigned from the CP to become a member of the Commission of Industrial Relations in 1968 under Wilson's Labour government. Whatever the pretext for these resignations (significantly always over an issue which was popular among reformist leaders), the fact was that once the communist bureaucrats reached a certain level in the hierarchy, the CP ceased to have enough to offer from their point of view.
At the same time, by compromising increasingly with the union and Labour bureaucracy, by becoming more and more indistinguishable from the Labour politicians and the union leaders, the CP also lost its previous appeal to those who wanted to fight in the working class. And yet, it was this rank-and-file working class base that kept the CP alive for so long. The CP bureaucrats who sat in committees and enjoyed the perks of the union bureaucracy owed their positions to the tireless and dedicated work of obscure militants on the ground who stuck it out as long as they could without allowing themselves to use the misdeeds of Stalinism as a pretext to give up their commitment to the working class. These rank-and-file activists, however, could not make up forever for the failures of the CP. It became more and more difficult for them to find new recruits and the CP started disappearing on the ground. As the organisation was weakening, there was less and less stake for those who were discontented to stay and splits occurred - in the 60s with the Maoist groups, in 1977 with the New Communist Party and then in 1985 with the expulsion of what has become today the Communist Party of Britain, not to mention a galaxy of semi-clandestine factions which operated in the CP during most of the 80s.
What remains today are a few very small groups claiming the heritage of the CP's militant past, but without the activity on the ground that would give them some credibility, and another group, slightly larger, the Democratic Left, which has openly dropped all reference to the communist tradition.
For a revolutionary communist party in Britain
In the history of the British Communist Party, there were at various points militants who either were expelled or left the party and set themselves the task to build a new one, free of all the distortions introduced by Stalinism. Most of these militants had come to support Trotsky's ideas. We did not discuss their attempts here, mostly because none of these attempts led anywhere. This being said and whatever their failings, the political and personal courage of these activists deserves some respect. It was indeed a lot more difficult, and at times dangerous to be a Trotskyist in the 30s and 40s than it is today.
The disappearance of the Communist Party has left a political vacuum in the working class. The CP, as it was built in the 20s, never developed into a revolutionary party in the Bolshevik sense, but it was and remains the only example of an organisation which had both the militant resources and the political will to make a serious attempt at building such a revolutionary party in Britain. This should be enough for any serious revolutionary to consider the experience of the British CP, particularly of its early years, as a landmark and an integral part of the revolutionary tradition in this country. All the more so as those on the revolutionary left who have had, at various points in the past and present, the resources to make positive use of the CP's experience failed to have the political will to do so.
The political and militant tradition, rooted in the class struggle, which the CP represented no longer exists in Britain's large workplaces. Up until the mid-70s, in these strongholds of the potential power of the working class, rank-and-file CP activists were present in the day-to-day struggle, through their intervention as shop stewards or ordinary union members, and politically through their literature and the sale of the Morning Star every day before going in to work. Despite their shortcomings and the betrayals of their leaders, for millions of workers these activists were a constant reminder, day-in and day-out, of the idea that society can and should be changed through the direct intervention of the working class, that workers need to organise politically, outside the channels of bourgeois democracy, if they are to change their lives.
This basic tradition has disappeared. Most workers in this country, particularly among the younger generation, have never met one real communist worker in their lives and have never seen political activists intervening as such, for their ideas at work. This aspect of the communist tradition, at least, could be easily recreated. All it would take is for today's revolutionary activists and organisations to choose and to organise their political activities, their propaganda, their literature, as a function of this aim. It would need the directing of the enthusiasm and the energy of the youth who participate in demonstrations over single-issue campaigns, towards the task of bringing revolutionary communist ideas back into the larger factories and workplaces of this country. And it would not necessarily be difficult to convince these youth that this task is well worth doing, that it is a necessity and that it is a task to be proud of.
Carrying out this task would immediately raise the problem of how to intervene and to organise in the factories, because workers do not judge ideas at face value, but only against the test of reality, and particularly of the day-to-day class struggle. This is a task that a revolutionary organisation could apply itself to undertake provided it had the militant resources required - that is members or at least supporters on the shopfloor and an organisation which is competent, dedicated and disciplined enough to help, in whatever way is required, its members on the ground. Such an organisation would, in effect, be setting itself the task of building a revolutionary communist party.
Of course, it is fashionable these days in many left circles to blame Stalinism on the Bolsheviks' conception of what a revolutionary workers' party should be and to present the collapse of the USSR as an evidence of the failure of Lenin's ideas. Such ideas are fashionable today, but they are by no means new. Since the very first days of the Revolution in 1917, every difficulty and every failure of the Soviet Union was blamed by one group or another on Lenin's ideas. Yet none of these critics ever came up with really new ideas, let alone with ideas that have been vindicated by the test of experience.
Whatever the blame put on them, the Bolsheviks did pass the test of experience. The Bolshevik party remains to date the only revolutionary organisation in the world to have succeeded in leading the proletarian masses to take power and effectively overthrow capitalism and the capitalist class. This is why, whether it is fashionable or not to say such a thing these days, a Bolshevik party is the kind of party we need today in Britain, because our aim is precisely to overthrow capitalism. And as long as revolutionary militants in this country fail to put their energy into starting to build such a party, the reformist bureaucrats who help the capitalists to keep the working class under their thumb will not be really challenged, and the chances to see the working class of this country contributing to the emancipation of the world proletariat, and to its own emancipation, will be non-existent.
But we are confident that communist ideas and the revolutionary will of those who want to end capitalism once and for all will be stronger than all fashions and that a new communist tradition will re-emerge soon in Britain.