Communists and the Labour Party 1927-29: A Sense of Déjŕ Vu
The article below was published in Workers Action No.18, Summer 2002, along with an extract from Class Against Class, the Communist Party’s programme for the 1929 general election. The reply by Bob Pitt which follows (‘Communists and the Labour Party: A Response’) was published as a letter in No.19, October 2002.
The problem is that the increasingly Stalinised Comintern did not arrive at the wilder shores of sectarianism in one leap. By the early 1930s, the Comintern’s frenzied attacks, not just on "social fascists", but on "anarcho-fascists", "liberal fascists", "clerical fascists", "left social fascists", and of course "Trotsky-fascists", suggested that almost every other political tendency beyond its own ranks supported or was conniving at fascism. But to arrive at this lunacy had taken a series of shifts, the study of which is highly instructive and of more than just historical significance.
For two years from 1927 to 1929, the Communist Party of Great Britain was caught up in a set of internal struggles whose central issues sound remarkably contemporary over 70 years later:
In fact, to compare these debates with debates under way within the left today and particularly within the Socialist Alliance needs no laboured analogy. Nor is this meant as an insult to Socialist Alliance comrades. The CPGB in the late 1920s was a party whose members remained dedicated to the victory of revolutionary socialism if anything they were impatient for its victory. But the mistakes made by the party in this period echo down to today, not least because they have been repeated in one form or another by many who consider themselves Trotskyists. The struggle in the CPGB over the "new line" marked both the last genuine political struggle within the party, and at the same time the decisive period in which the party was finally Stalinised.
Attempts by the right-wing Labour leaders to take action against Communists being active in the Labour Party gathered strength in the period running up to the 1926 General Strike. The Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party in autumn 1925 reaffirmed the previous year’s conference decision proscribing Communists from being individual members of the party, although they could still operate as delegates of affiliated trade unions. However, as many as 100 divisional and borough parties resisted the edict and by the end of 1926 some 1,500 Communists were still active as individual members. On the strength of this resistance, the National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM) was launched in December 1925, uniting Communists, Labour and Independent Labour Party leftists, and trade union militants.
At its second conference in September 1927, 54 local Labour parties sent delegates, claiming to represent 150,000 members. For the small CPGB, this represented a considerable achievement. Its own membership, which had stood at only 5,000 in 1925, risen slowly to 6,000 by April 1926, and then grown rapidly to 10,700 by October that year under the impact of the betrayal of the General Strike, had fallen back to 7,400 by 1927. Yet through the NLWM, and its widely read paper, the Sunday Worker, it exercised an influence well in excess of its modest size. Whatever its limitations, it demonstrated as Trotsky would subsequently teach his own British supporters that such a tactic can act as "the lever of a small group".
Origins of the "new line"
The theoretical underpinning of the left turn was provided by a new periodisation of the class struggle since 1917. The "first period" had been one of revolutionary upsurge following the October Revolution; the second had been characterised by a retreat under the slogan of the united front; the "third period", now opening, was one of a "renewed offensive", in which Europe "was obviously entering into the period of a new revolutionary upswing".2
Translating this into a viable perspective for the national sections of the Comintern proved everywhere a daunting task, and Britain was no exception. The working class had been forced back on to the defensive in the wake of the defeat of the General Strike and the subsequent employers’ offensive. Strike days, which had totalled 162,233,000 in 1926, fell to 1,174,0003 the following year.
The first indication of a shift of the Comintern’s line in Britain came in the form of a telegram from Moscow received in October 1927, shortly after the CPGB’s Ninth Congress. It gave notice that its attitude to the Labour Party was up for reconsideration. Two months later, at a meeting of the Presidium of the Comintern, it was proposed to withdraw the slogan of a Labour government, and instead call for a revolutionary Labour government.4
This implied criticism of the British party’s line despite its lack of basis in reality fell on fertile ground. The defeat of the General Strike had been followed by aggressive anti-Communist campaigns in both the Labour Party and the unions. Thus, although the party’s influence over left-leaning Labour Party members and militant unionists had grown, it was in an overall context of retreat, and it had failed to translate into the growth of the party’s membership. Indeed, by March 1928, it had fallen to 5,500. Much of the initial debate concerned the NLWM, the leftists seeing it as a barrier to building a revolutionary movement, rather than a bridge.
Struggle in the CPGB
The majority included such leading figures as T.A. Jackson, J.R. Campbell, Willie Gallacher, Wal Hannington and Andrew Rothstein, and stood by the existing line, claiming support from Lenin’s writings such as Left-Wing Communism.
At a meeting of the CP Central Committee in January 1928, Campbell’s thesis defending the majority line was carried by 17 votes to 6. Both wings of the CC were represented at the enlarged Ninth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), held in Moscow in February 1928.5 Campbell and Gallacher put up a vigorous defence of the majority’s views, with Gallacher warning of where the minority’s logic would lead: "... if [Labour] is a third bourgeois party, and we have to start fighting it now along the whole front, we should not wait till the election, we should start now. And the first thing to be done is to go to our comrades in the trade unions and say: ‘Withdraw from this third bourgeois party.’ Instead of the party going forward in the fight for affiliation, we ought to advocate the withdrawal of the trade unions from the third bourgeois party."6
However, faced with the ECCI’s support for many of the minority’s positions, the majority retreated, and a left-leaning resolution was passed unanimously. It claimed that the Labour and trade union leaders were "endeavouring gradually to convert their organisations into auxiliary apparatuses of the bourgeois State and the employers’ organisations"; it called for a "strenuous fight" against the selection procedures for Labour Party candidates, and urged local parties "to call new Selection Conferences"; it committed the CPGB to "come out more boldly and more clearly as an independent political party, to change its attitude towards the Labour Party and the Labour Government and consequently to replace the slogan of the Labour Government by the slogan of the Revolutionary Workers’ Government".7
While this was clearly seen as a victory for the leftist perspective, it stopped short of endorsing several of the minority’s positions. In spite of the rhetoric about a "Revolutionary Workers’ Government", nowhere did the resolution clearly define the Labour Party as a purely bourgeois party. It also declared it "inexpedient as yet" to withdraw the tactic of applying for affiliation to the Labour Party. And it rejected the proposal to abstain in the forthcoming general election in constituencies in which there was no Communist candidate.
In an introduction to the report of the Plenum’s British Commission, Campbell adopted a tone of ritualistic self-criticism. The Central Committee had "underestimated the extent to which the bureaucracy had succeeded in consolidating its influence in the Labour Party and rendering all left-wing work in that body impossible".8 But the differences were glossed over, rather than resolved, and the extent to which the party was saddled with a set of contradictory policies was soon exposed in its confused relationship with, and intervention into, the Cook-Maxton campaign.9
The campaign was launched in June 1928 with the publication of a manifesto issued under the signatures of miners’ leader A.J. Cook and the left-wing Clydeside MP Jimmy Maxton of the ILP, although it was apparently written by Maxton, John Wheatley and Willie Gallacher. Interestingly, the manifesto declared that the Labour Party was "no longer a working class party but a party representing all sections of the community".10 The campaign, despite its revivalist style and confused politics, did evoke a considerable response among workers. Although the CPGB had played a significant role behind the scenes in launching the campaign, rising leftism within the party led the leadership to issue a statement which described the manifesto as "nothing more than the effort to create a pseudo-left opposition in the parliamentary Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy, resulting in diverting the workers from the real struggle".11 At a rally in Glasgow, CP members demanded that Maxton call for Ramsay MacDonald’s expulsion from the Labour Party: "If supporters of the new line had a strategy for intervention in the campaign, it was to provoke the Labour Party right wing into expelling the left, thereby providing the Communist Party with an anticipated influx of recruits."12
Meanwhile, at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, which opened in Moscow in July 1928, the Third Period received something approaching an official launch by Bukharin, who would shortly become one of its most prominent victims. Belief in the rapid growth of revolutionary consciousness among workers, fuelled by an ever-deepening crisis of capitalism, became an article of faith, and the failure of perspectives to materialise was attributed in section after section to the failure of leaderships to implement the ultra-left turn with sufficient rigour.
The political levy
In November 1928, the Central Committee of the CPGB passed three resolutions that highlighted the contradictory, halfway house it now occupied. It unanimously agreed to drop the demand for the CPGB to be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party, and to call for trade unions to disaffiliate from it. By 15 votes to two it advocated continuing to pay the political levy, with the aim of controlling it locally at a later date, while by 13-4 it voted to continue to support the NLWM.
The response of the ECCI, received shortly before the CPGB’s Tenth Congress held in Bermondsey in January 1929, was more cautious, opposing both dropping the CP’s affiliation tactic and the call for trade union disaffiliation.15 By the time of the Bermondsey Congress, membership had fallen again, to 3,500 less than half of what it had been at the outset of the "new line" little more than a year before. The leftists, urged on by Moscow, shrilly insisted that the NLWM and the united front orientation it rested on were the main obstacles to masses of radicalised workers streaming into the party. A motion to disband the NLWM was passed against the wishes of the majority of the leadership by the narrow margin of 55-52 a result so close that it was referred back to Moscow for further consideration. Shortly after the congress, the CP members on the National Committee of the NLWM carried a vote to dissolve the movement and urge its members to join the CP.
Delegates to the Tenth Congress also voted by 100-22 to continue paying the political levy, even if it was "only in order more effectively to work for the breakdown of this bourgeois party".16 On dual unionism, the congress "resolved to support breakaway unions where the left wing was threatened by right-wing leaders who were not supported by a majority of the membership".17
On March 23, 1929, the Central Committee of the CPGB voted by 18-5 in favour of abstaining in the forthcoming general election in seats where there was no Communist candidate. Workers in such constituencies should spoil their ballot papers by writing "Communist" across them. When the election was held on May 31, the CPGB fielded 25 candidates, who polled a total of 50,000 votes, or 5.3 per cent of the vote in the seats it contested. It was widely regarded as a poor performance,18 barely more than the 41,000 votes it had won in 1924 when it had contested only six seats. A key extract from the party’s election manifesto Class Against Class the name by which the "new line" was known publicly is reproduced after this article. As is characteristic of ultra-leftism, it combined wishful thinking (the idea that the Labour leadership had exposed itself "completely" while in government) with abstract maximalist propaganda (the programme of the "Revolutionary Workers’ Government"). The conclusion was that Labour had become "the third capitalist party".
The triumph of ultra-leftism
Since the ECCI made a special point of calling for an "energetic struggle" against the left wing of social democracy, any hope of rescuing what remained of the party’s influence in the Labour left was out of the question. The Sunday Worker whose circulation had reached 100,000 three years before was allowed to fold. Communist influence in the trade unions was also shrinking in most industries, and the Minority Movement held its last annual conference in August 1929.
By the end of the year, membership had fallen even further to 3,20020 as the internal struggle grew in the frantic attempt to find a leadership capable of consistently applying the ever more ultra-left line coming from Moscow. The ECCI intervened to bring forward the party’s congress, which was now billed as an emergency congress and held in Leeds from November 30-December 3, 1929. Summing up the results of the congress, Brian Pearce writes that it "registered the final, total triumph of the New Line in deeds as well as words, with guarantees in the form of changes in the leadership".21 Only 13 of the 30 Central Committee members elected in January were re-elected.
The congress’s main resolution pulled no punches in its ultra-leftism, denouncing the Labour government as "social fascist" and spelling out the classic sectarian formula of the "united front from below": "The tactic of the united front from below is the most effective means of winning over the Left workers, and, at the same time, exposing the ‘left’ reformist leaders, the most dangerous enemies of the workers."22 In a message to the congress, the Presidium of the ECCI topped even this by speaking of the "fascization" of both the Labour Party and the trade unions.23
In two years, the CPGB’s role in the organised labour movement had been all but destroyed. Much of the blame can be laid at the door of the Stalinised Comintern, although, as I have tried to show, there were also domestic pressures arising out of the difficult conditions after the defeat of the General Strike that fuelled the mood of desperate ultra-leftism.
Third Period Trotskyism
Calling for an abstention in seats other than those contested by "revolutionary" candidates has a similarly long and ill-starred career, from Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali of the IMG in 1970, via Spartacism, to Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and some of those active in the Socialist Alliance at the last general election. Nor is the Socialist Alliance’s elevation of standing against Labour to the level of a principle new; it was first voice by Robin Page Arnot in 1928: "In order express the antagonism against the Labour Party in the sharpest way, the principle must be that we put candidates wherever we can."24
Page Arnot also anticipated by over 70 years the Socialist Alliance’s justification for splitting the vote in this year’s local elections in Burnley and letting in the British National Party: "this argument of ‘letting the capitalist candidate in’ is wrong ... This is an argument which should not be put forward in our discussion here."25
Like Page Arnot, the Socialist Alliance brushes aside the issue of splitting the vote, even if the outcome is the victory of a fascist. The main issue, they argue, is to build the Socialist Alliance’s base from which it flows logically that which party actually wins seats is a secondary issue.
On the trade union-Labour link and the political funds, the Socialist Alliance even if it is split internally between several different positions is all too clearly travelling the same road as that taken by the CPGB in 1928.
Attempting to "build the party" by trying to engineer the expulsion of Labour leftists was tried by the Socialist Workers Party in 1991, when it campaigned for Labour Party members to tear up their membership cards and sign an "Open Letter" that committed them to building "an independent socialist alternative to Labour ... outside the Labour Party". Not surprisingly the stunt failed to make any lasting gains. And the SWP’s preference for operating through party-controlled front organisations like the Anti-Nazi League and Globalise Resistance owes not a little to the CPGB’s politics after it liquidated genuine mass organisations like the Minority Movement and the NLWM.
Even the (current) CPGB/Weekly Worker’s attempt in the 2001 general election to commit Labour candidates to left policies in return for critical support was first proposed by Palme Dutt and Harry Pollitt’s minority document from January 1928.26
The prize for the longest running and most committed continuation of Third Period politics would in the past have gone to Gerry Healy’s WRP, which by the late 1970s had abandoned even the pretence of electoral tactics in favour of demanding a Workers’ Revolutionary Government by happy chance a straightforward reshuffle of the CPGB’s Revolutionary Workers’ Government slogan of 1929. Sheila Torrance’s News Line is in this sense a worthy successor, with its crazed belief in imminent revolution being driven forward by economic catastrophe, and its fetishisation of a daily paper without even modest support. Another Healyite fragment, the Socialist Equality Party (formerly the ICP), has for years insisted in impeccable Third Period style that left reformists are much the most dangerous enemies of the workers’ movement, while the trade unions, it discovered some years ago, are no longer workers’ organisations at all.
It is, then, deeply ironic that all these avowed opponents of Stalinism should have endlessly repeated the sectarian mistakes of the CPGB from 1927-29, and created a weird and wonderful Third Period Trotskyist hybrid. One angle relatively unexplored by writers from the Trotskyist tradition is the extent to which Trotsky’s own writings from the mid-1920s have nourished this strange offspring. Certainly his emphasis on criticising the role of the trade union "lefts" Purcell, Swales, Hicks and Cook before, during and after the General Strike, was somewhat one-sided, and not always balanced by stressing that the only route for the CPGB to reach a mass audience lay in united front activity along the lines of the NLWM and the Minority Movement. The core of the first British Trotskyist group the Balham Group was comrades who in 1929 had thought that the problems of the CPGB lay in not applying the "new line" consistently enough.27 They were won to Trotsky’s ideas in 1931 as a result of his writings on Germany rather than those on Britain.
In contrast, Trotsky’s advice to his British supporters in the 1930s often showed far greater tactical awareness and understanding of British conditions, together with a deeper understanding of the dangers of sectarianism. All too often, latter-day Trotskyists have drawn the conclusion that the essence of revolutionary politics lies in demarcating themselves at all costs from the "lefts", in the hope that the process of convincing reformist-minded workers can be achieved via a shortcut.
1. Cf. N. Branson’s official History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941, Lawrence and Wishart, 1985, p.17: "This new line which came to be known as ‘Class Against Class’ was a disaster. It alienated former allies, and made it much harder for the Party to recover lost ground in later years."
2. H. Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain: The CPGB from its Origins to the Second World War, Pluto, 1976, p.72.
3. This equates approximately to the level of strikes in 2002.
4. Branson, op. cit, p.19.
5. Appendix 1 of B. Pearce, ‘The Communist Party and the Labour Left 1925-1929’, in M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays in the History of Communism in Britain, New Park 1975, pp.193-197 contains extracts from contributions made by Campbell, Page Arnot and Gallacher.
6. Ibid. p.197.
7. Ibid. pp.198-201.
8. Quoted in Dewar, op. cit. p.80.
9. See B. Pitt, ‘The Cook-Maxton Campaign’, Workers News No.12, Oct-Nov 1988.
11. Branson, op. cit. p. 33.
12. Pitt, op. cit.
13. Pearce, op. cit. p. 200.
14. L. Trotsky, Writings on Britain Vol.2, New Park, 1974, p.101.
15. This contradicts the view that "almost always the CPGB itself stood to the right of the Stalinist majority in the International" J. Hinton and R. Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the Early Communist Party, Pluto, 1975, p.9.
16. Quoted in Branson, op. cit. p.34.
17. Hinton and Hyman, op. cit. p.48.
18. This was nonetheless more than three times better in percentage terms than the Socialist Alliance polled in 2001.
19. R. Groves, The Balham Group, Pluto, 1974, p.22.
20. It may have even fallen below 3000 cf. Branson, op. cit. p.48.
21. Woodhouse and Pearce, op. cit. p.191.
22. Ibid. p.203.
23. Ibid. p.192.
24. Ibid. p.194.
25. Ibid. p.196.
26. Branson, op. cit. p.25.
27. See S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Against the Stream, Socialist Platform, 1986, Chapter 3; Groves, op. cit.
Extract from the Communist Party of Great Britain’s programme for the 1929 general election
The Communist Party
The Communist Party therefore is the deadly enemy of capitalism and capitalist parties. It has as its aims the leadership of the working class in the overthrow of capitalism, the establishment of a revolutionary workers’ government as the means to the establishment of a Communist society in which the means of production will not be the private property of the few, a society which will not be based upon profit but on labour, will not be based on class division, will eradicate both imperialist wars and class wars, and abolish poverty forever. It regards the struggle for a revolutionary workers’ government in Britain as part of the international war of the classes which can only end by the establishment of a World Federation of Workers’ and Peasants’ Republics.
The Means of Conquest
The political power of the capitalist class is exercised, not merely through the parliamentary institutions, which it modifies or discards according to the advancement of oppositional opinion within them but though its own class control of all institutions, by its own officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, police force, law courts, press, schools, church. It is only possible to conquer this class domination when, through the breakdown of capitalist economy and the sharpening of class relations, which inevitably follow, the majority of the workers are prepared forcibly to throw off the capitalist class control in all phases of social, industrial and political activity, and themselves take control of the factories, mines, workshops, railways, etc.
The manner in which the everyday struggle of the workers against the capitalist class culminates in the fight for power was clearly seen in the General Strike of 1926. Although the strike was generated by the efforts of the working class to defend their economic conditions the action itself brought the classes face to face with the question which class shall rule in Britain? The capitalist class answered with the suspension of parliamentarism and the mobilisation of its military forces ready to answer with war in the streets. The working class, led by the leaders of the Labour Party intent on the welfare of the State, was unprepared for so decisive a battle. The working class was defeated. Nevertheless it is thus that the fight for power comes for which the working class has to prepare.
When the working class has power it can build socialism. With a revolutionary workers’ government, exercising a working-class dictatorship and operating a real workers’ democracy, the working class can solve the economic and social problems of this country and liberate hundreds of millions of oppressed peoples. With power in the hands of the workers, the pathway to socialism is as clear as daylight. A revolutionary workers’ government, having conquered the capitalists, would not have to seek their consent to nationalise this industry or that. It would, under the leadership of the Communist Party, at once proceed to socialise the economic life of this country, and, for the first time in history give the working class, i.e., the great majority of the population, equality of opportunity, control over their daily lives and power to build the future.
The Communist Party and the General Election
The Tory Party
The Liberal Party
The Liberal Party is one of the masks which the British capitalists wear in order to swindle the workers. It led the British Imperialist forces into the war of 1914-18, and agrees with the Tory Party on the need to maintain the Empire as the instrument of colonial exploitation. Its leader, Simon, is chairman of the Commission appointed by the Tory Government to devise improved means for the subjugation of India. It opposes universal disarmament as proposed by the Soviet Government. Its leader, Lloyd George, was responsible for the Black and Tan regime in Ireland. It was party to the Versailles Treaty and is a supporter of the capitalist League of Nations. It is a supporter of the Dawes Plan and the Locarno Pact. It also is a "Mondist" party.
The Labour Party
The Labour Party "in principle" stands for the nationalisation of the banks, land and industry by purchase, i.e. state capitalism, but relegates in practice even this "principle" to the far distant future. Meanwhile it is prepared to advocate the development of rationalisation of industry. A common ground is thus provided in its programme for the co-operation of Tories, Liberals and Labour. The Labour programme says (Labour and the Nation, pp. 15, 16), "They, [the capitalists] will be well advised to begin by setting their own house in order to modernise their organisation, improve their technique, eliminate waste and apply more intelligently the resources which science has revealed.
The Parties of Capitalist Violence
Our Changed Attitude to the Labour Party
The Labour Government exposed the Labour Party leadership completely. It proved the Communist Party criticisms to be correct. The "minority" Labour Government was nothing more than a coalition with the Tories and Liberals. The Labour leaders "led" the General Strike only to betray it in the face of the challenge of the State. The General Strike raised the question of class power which class shall rule in Britain. The Labour Party leadership of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress were against the struggle for power. They stood for capitalist power against working-class power. They co-operated with the Tories in the defeat of the General Strike, but from within. They denounced the General Strike and propagated against it. They developed the offensive against the Communist Party and the revolutionary workers who stand for the working-class struggle for power. They tied the trade unions to the Tories and Liberals under the banner of Mondism and transformed the Labour Party from a federal organisation to a single party with a capitalist programme under the banner of "Empire and Mondism". It is now no longer possible for the Communist Party or the trade unions to bring pressure to bear on the Labour Party from within. It is a completely disciplined capitalist party.
The Communist Party, as the party of the working class, must of necessity therefore explain to the workers in deeds as well as words the completely changed situation, and set before the workers the means of advancing to socialism.
These are the reasons for the Communist Party’s exposure and denunciation of the Labour Party as the third capitalist party, and why it puts forward its candidates against the Labour Party and selects its leaders for especial challenge.
Class is against class. The Labour Party has chosen the capitalist class. The Communist Party is the party of the working class.
RICHARD PRICE’S article in the last Workers Action (‘Communists and the Labour Party, 1927-29: A Sense of Déjŕ Vu’) draws some instructive parallels between the politics of the Socialist Alliance today and those of the Communist Party of Great Britain when it made its turn to "Third Period" Stalinism. But I would question his analysis of the CPGB’s politics in the 1920s, both before and after the turn to anti-Labour sectarianism.
First of all, I think more emphasis should be placed on the fact that the CPGB’s slide into ultra-leftism cannot simply be explained as the result of a political line imposed by the Communist International. There was in fact an indigenous dynamic to the process, arising from the specific character of the labour movement in Britain and the CPGB’s attempts to relate to this.
Also, while it is fair enough to contrast the lunacies of the Third Period to the more serious approach towards the Labour Party adopted by the CPGB in earlier years, this leads Richard to adopt a rather uncritical attitude towards the Left-Wing Movement, the organisation through which the Communists sought to co-ordinate their fraction work in the Labour Party during the mid-1920s. It was the incoherence and impracticality of this strategy, I would argue, that ultimately destroyed the CP’s Labour Party work and laid the foundations for the shift towards sectarianism.
The CPGB’s flawed approach to Labour went back to its foundation. The first Unity Convention of July-August 1920, which established the CPGB as the British section of the Communist International, voted only narrowly, by 100 votes to 85, to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. If it hadn’t been for Lenin’s intervention in support of this proposal it is doubtful whether the conference would have agreed to it. As it was, many of the newly-elected CPGB leaders were fiercely opposed to joining the Labour Party. Lenin, in an attempt to placate the ultra-left, had stated that if the CP affiliated to Labour and was then expelled this would be a positive development, as it would expose to the masses the reactionary character of the Labour leadership. The anti-Labour faction on the CPGB executive grasped this lifeline, reasoning that there was no point going through the rigmarole of joining and then getting thrown out, when the same result could be achieved by provoking the Labour leadership into excluding the CP in the first place.
So the application for affiliation which the CP sent to Labour’s national executive was couched in terms stressing the CPGB’s rejection of reformism, its commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so on that guaranteed the application would be rejected. Not only did this provide the Labour leadership with a pretext to exclude the CP, but it also alienated rank-and-file members of the Labour Party and trade unions, who in their overwhelming majority were not of course revolutionaries. When in the early 1920s the CPGB made repeated attempts to overturn the national executive’s decision, by sending motions to Labour Party conferences supporting the CPGB’s right to affiliate, these were invariably rejected by huge majorities. So, far from "exposing" the Labour leaders and winning sympathy among the rank and file for Communism, the CPGB succeeded in politically marginalising itself within the labour movement and reinforcing the political domination of the right wing over the Labour Party.
Not only were the CP’s appeals for the right of affiliation turned down, but during the 1920s increasing restrictions were imposed on the Communists’ ability to operate in the Labour Party. At the 1924 Labour Party conference Communists were disbarred from standing as Labour candidates in either municipal or parliamentary elections. More important, a motion proposing that CPers should not be allowed to be individual members of the Labour Party was passed by a comfortable majority. This was endorsed at the 1925 conference, which also agreed that affiliated trade unions ought not to appoint Communists as their delegates to Labour Party conferences.
These years, it should be borne in mind, marked a crucial period in the development of the labour movement. Millions of working people were abandoning their loyalty to the Liberal and Tory parties, and turning for the first time to the Labour Party, with the result that in the December 1923 general election sufficient Labour MPs were elected to enable the formation of a minority Labour government. As a strategic blunder, the failure of Communists to integrate themselves into the political wing of the labour movement during this period was on a par with the decision of the Social Democratic Federation to walk out of the Labour Party a year after its foundation.
By the mid-1920s it was becoming increasingly difficult for Communists to function legally in the Labour Party. They could still get delegated from trade unions and other affiliates to local parties but, as we have seen, unions were asked not to send CPers as conference delegates and, crucially, Communists were banned from individual membership of the Labour Party. The CP responded by encouraging sympathetic local parties to defy the conference decisions and refuse to exclude Communists, which of course provided the Labour leaders with a welcome opportunity to expel their leftist critics.
As Richard points out in his article, when the Left-Wing Movement held its first national conference in 1926 it took place against a background of mounting repression against Communists in the Labour Party and against those local parties that failed to exclude them from membership. By the following year, when the Left-Wing Movement held its second conference, most of the local parties represented there were in fact no longer in the Labour Party, having been disaffiliated by the national executive. Was this really the basis on which to organise a viable left-wing opposition in the ranks of the Labour Party?
By 1928, when the Labour Party conference tightened the rules still further by specifically banning affiliates from sending Communists as conference delegates, almost all avenues for Communist intervention in the Labour Party had been closed down. Certainly, the Left-Wing Movement strategy was no longer workable. So the Third Period line of withdrawing the CP’s remaining forces from the Labour Party and challenging it at the ballot box made some sort of sense, from the standpoint of building the CPGB. It was not a case of a new sectarian line that emanated from Moscow destroying a successful orientation towards the Labour Party, as Richard seems to suggest, but rather of a failed strategy towards Labour fuelling "domestic" ultra-leftism.
What ought the CPGB to have done? By the mid-1920s it should have been clear that maintaining a separate Communist Party and conducting effective political work in the Labour Party were mutually exclusive objectives. In 1925 Frank Horrabin, the editor of Plebs magazine and himself a former CPer, proposed that the CPGB should dissolve itself and Communists should join the Labour Party as individuals. I think he was right. Communists could have organised more loosely around a publication like the Sunday Worker (a CP-edited weekly, directed towards a broad Labour and trade union readership, which reached a circulation of 100,000 in the mid-1920s) while promoting a more theoretical approach through an explicitly Marxist journal.
However, this strategy would have been impossible, given the dogmatic insistence of the Communist International that its supporters must, as a matter of principle, be organised in a distinct Communist Party. So, in a sense, the cause of the failure of the CPGB’s Labour Party work and the shift towards anti-Labour sectarianism was indeed to be found the politics of the Communist International not so much in its degenerate Third Period phase, however, but rather in the mistaken organisational basis on which the International was founded. But that’s really another story.